Guatemala - Part Two
Exotic Land of the Maya
May 28, 2008 - November 4, 2008


If you remember from our last trip report, our departure from the island of Roatan, Honduras, was premature. We were not quite ready to give up the world-class diving and the wonderful laid back atmosphere of Roatan’s West End area.

But, all good things must come to an end. Tropical Storm Alma was approaching and she forced our hand. Prudence demanded we run into the Rio Dulce for protection. After our near miss with Hurricane Felix in Bonaire in 2006, we take absolutely no chances whatsoever with tropical depressions and tropical storms anymore. We treat them all as if they are Cat 5 Hurricanes bearing down on us.

So, we waved goodbye to the fabulous Bay Islands of Honduras and set out on an overnighter to the Rio Dulce. I’ll say it again: the sadness of leaving a destination is always eclipsed by the excitement and adventure of crossing new horizons.

We had a great sail! It was all downwind with steady trades in the 20 knot range and moderate to large following seas. Looking aft as darkness fell I sure was glad we were not going the other way! It is the difference between a comfy passage versus a nerve-grating upwind “crash and bash.” So, we were happy to be getting the best ride from Mother Nature.

Even though we were in a zone of severe atmospheric instability caused by Alma’s leading edge, and saw many thunderstorms inland over the mainland of Honduras all night, we did not encounter any thunderstorms offshore, Gracias a Dios! Showers were just forming near us in the hot morning sun as we made an early landfall at the town of Livingston, Guatemala, situated at the mouth of Guatemala’s Rio Dulce.

It is here in Livingston that cruising yachts must check in with Customs and Immigration before proceeding upriver roughly 20 miles to the marina areas.

Let’s look at a map to get oriented:

The Rio Dulce area, from east to west, includes four main areas: 1) Livingston and the Canyon (a.k.a. the gorge); 2) the Golfete; 3) the upper Rio Dulce that connects the Golfete and Lago Izabal; and Lago Izabal which is a huge lake (about the same size as Lake Pontchartrain at New Orleans). The "developed" marina area of the Rio Dulce is located near Fronteras and limited to the stretch of river between Lake Izabal and the Golfete with the exception of Texan Bay Marina which is located on the south shore of the Golfete across from Cayo Grande. (map courtesy of Capt. Nemo's)

We had heard legendary accounts of the Rio Dulce for years; wonderful comments flowing along the cruisers’ coconut telegraph such as: “it is the most beautiful place in all the Caribbean;” “it is by far the safest hurricane hole in all the Caribbean”; the inland travel is more spectacular by far than anywhere else in the entire Caribbean"; and, "the Spanish schools in the city of Antigua are the best in the Americas."

There seemed to be a solid consensus that the Rio Dulce is absolutely worth the trip just for the inland travel alone.

As we departed Aruba back in 2007, and headed west toward Colombia, we knew the decision to visit the Rio Dulce had been made. There would be no “backtracking” upwind from Colombia to Aruba, and once in Colombia we knew the trade winds and currents would make a compelling argument and demand we continue west and northwest, headed ultimately to the Rio Dulce for a hurricane season.

And so it was.

Ok, I need to concentrate here . . . we are getting close to the channel entering the Rio. Let’s turn our attention back to the task at hand and try not to run aground while entering the Rio Dulce!

Arrival in Livingston, Guatemala

There is a shallow mud bar that rises up from the bottom just off the mouth of the Rio Dulce. This shallow area covers several hundred yards and visiting yachts with deep keels of six feet or more have to time their arrival at high tide.

Shoal draft vessels and catamarans do not have to time their arrival because the depths are usually no problem for vessels drawing less than five feet. Indigo Moon draws four feet. There is only one outer channel marker offshore from Livingston, and the channel itself is not marked. Cruisers exchange "known" waypoints to help each other cross the bar without incident.

And, as is customary when buddy-boating, shallow draft vessels often lead the way and serve as "scouts" for the deep keel vessels, reporting to them via the VHF as to the depths they are seeing. This allows the rest of the pack to keep well aft and turn around if the going gets too thin.

But we were in a fleet of "one" and proceeded with care. I had three sets of waypoints from various sources and just "split the difference" and had no trouble at all with depths remaining exactly 6.7 feet on the super-flat bar. About halfway into the channel, I became confident we were in good shape and began to relax enough to turn my attention back to appreciating the surroundings.

A small shower brushed the mountain to the southwest, cloaking part of it in thick clouds and sheets of rain. Other portions of the mountainous coastline shone under bright sun. Covered in dense jungle canopy, the brightly lit mountains exclaimed "Tropical Green!" The most-fitting single adjective is "exotic." Of course, terms such as alluring, dramatic, mesmerizing, and wondrous come effortlessly to mind as well. It is one of those situations where trying to find "just the right word" will badly "dog ear" a thesaurus.

Back at the helm, and still in the shallows of the bar, all of a sudden my sensations of magical landfall were sharply interrupted. What in the hell is that NOISE?! The seas were calm. Smooth ripples helped carry the unmistakable sound of Detroit Diesel engines, probably twin 6V-71's or twin 8V-71's, blaring a characteristically harsh and brassy duet from the south. I took out the binoculars and spotted an armed military vessel in the 45 foot range, about three miles away. Belching black smoke, it was obviously running at full cruise speed and headed directly at us!

Like all "targets" who realize they are in the cross hairs, my eyes went wide and I instantly looked behind me to see if there were any other possible "suspects." Nope! IT'S JUST ME!

So, I simply took a deep breath and held my course and speed, hoping for the best. For the next twenty minutes I "casually" watched the patrol boat gain seaway on us. When it reached the outer shallows of the mud bar, however, the patrol boat veered off and headed right back out on the heading from whence it came, all as if herding me into the Rio was its gloriously mission then fully completed.

As I watched the patrol boat depart, its black silhouette quickly disappeared in haze and the rising sun's blazing reflection upon the smooth summer waters. The screams of the Detroit Diesels ' remained at full volume, but the patrol boat itself had mysteriously vanished.

Then, a great gift from Mother Nature! I turned and looked forward again to see that a striking rainbow had appeared over Livingston, welcoming us to the legendary Rio Dulce.

I began hailing on channel 16 of the VHF to raise the Port Captain, and also Raul, the yacht agent who routinely handles all the paperwork for all visiting vessels. In no time, Raul arranged for the authorities to come out and inspect Indigo Moon. Raul is a lot of fun. He laughs very easily and I could tell, even over the VHF, that we seem to share the same mischievous gene.

In the meantime, while waiting for the officials, I eased the anchor down in eight feet of water as Melissa used the throttles to keep us steady and just barely drifting backward in the out-flowing current of the Rio Dulce.

Once sixty feet of chain was deployed, I signaled for Melissa to go to neutral and the force of the Rio pushed The Moon toward the open sea, setting the hook. After we were satisfied that the anchor was happily holding, we straightened up the cockpit and got ready for guests. I took a quick shower to wash off the "night watch" and put on nice shorts and even tucked my shirt in. Melissa readied various libations to offer up to our visitors.

In all our Caribbean travels, this is the first port we have ever been where the authorities actually come out and board your vessel. They arrive in one boatload. A Customs officer, Immigration officer, medical Doctor, and official from the Port Captain’s office all came out in one water-taxi and climbed aboard for the initial inspection of Indigo Moon, including a review of our vaccination records (shot cards) and to issue a health certification.

They were a very friendly bunch of fellows and we truly enjoyed having them aboard. In fact, they were so friendly that I offered them a tour and asked if they would like to see down inside the boat. As a rule, I would never invite strangers into the cabins of Indigo Moon, but these guys were so genuinely friendly that it did not even cross my mind to hesitate. They were ecstatic about the invitation and were very interested in seeing how we loco gringos were living aboard a catamaran.

Their Broken English was traded "even-steven" for my Bad Spanish and we enjoyed a nice chat. My Spanish has improved only a tiny bit and is still far from truly being adequate. But, at the same time, I have made real progress and "found my calling" in the gesture department. Never play charades against a gringo cruiser who has been in the Latin American Third World for a few years!

Anyway, we had fun and communicated just fine, all while Melissa poured juice, sodas and water. Plainly put, the officials in Livingston were very cordial and more genuinely welcoming by far than in any other destination we’ve been!

After our official guests departed by water-taxi, Melissa and I were free to drop our dinghy down and head into town. We were anchored about 50 yards from shore, so the dinghy ride was about one minute. Then, from the water’s edge, the walk up the river bank to Raul’s office took two minutes, right past a bakery with heavenly scents enticing us!

We presented our passports and ship’s papers. Raul said it would take about 45 minutes to run the paperwork between various agencies. Then, he jumped on his dirt bike with a knapsack and buzzed off to get the mission accomplished.

That gave us time to go to an ATM and withdraw some Guatemalan currency, and enjoy a nice walkabout to get an initial feel for the town of Livingston.

Here are some sights of our arrival:

A striking rainbow greets us as we approach Livingston . . . it looks like there is a pot-o-gold in town somewhere!

In the anchorage at Livingston, fishing boats rest at anchor in the out flowing currents of the Rio Dulce

We had a lot of very friendly officials come out by water taxi to pay us a visit on Indigo Moon before we could go ashore. They were very interested in the boat and we gave them a tour. They were the most gregarious and friendly officials we have ever met when entering a foreign country.

The streets are colorful in Livingston

What’s the smell? Hoo wee, something is very fishy! Sure enough, they are drying lots of fish in the sun!

Strange artwork: chicken-man in a diaper eating gold coins off the ground . . . Don’t ask me! . . . I’m clueless on this one!

No baby strollers here; papoose-style baby transport is the Gautemalan's way to go.

Lush tropical landscaping comes naturally on the Rio Dulce.

Livingston is a small town with an interesting history that exceeds its physical compactness. This area is inhabited by the “Garifuna”, direct descendants of African Slaves whose roots can be traced to the island of Roatan in Honduras. They were brought to Honduras after a revolt on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1795. The relocated slaves eventually spread into the western Caribbean, intermarried with Mayan and Carib Indians and developed their own Garifuna language comprised of African, Indian and European elements.

Livingston is an interesting little town, but we didn’t linger. We had been instructed by a veteran Rio Dulce cruiser that it is good security advice to get going early and make it to your marina on the first day. Also, Tropical Storm Alma was on our heels and we wanted to be secure before the weather moved in.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed a pleasing walking tour of Livingston while getting our land-legs back, always a welcome transition after any lumpy passage. We swung back by Raul’s office, ponied-up some of our new Guatemalan money ('Quetzales' -- named after the national bird of Guatemala, the quetzal) and got our cruising permit and passports. Then it was back to the boat.

We pulled anchor and started upriver at about 11:00 a.m.

The Rio Dulce has a great reputation for the beautiful and impressive canyon that forms the lower Rio Dulce. We were intrigued, but we were also suspicious that it would be, like many travel destinations, somewhat overrated.

Melissa and I have both seen some stunning vistas in our lives and are well-traveled: Europe, many awesome places in the U.S.A. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, all of the Caribbean . . . We are not easily astounded when it comes to natural beauty.

As we made the first turn in the Rio and entered the canyon, the view was absolutely breathtaking. We had entered an exotic natural corridor on a scale that meets and exceeds all that we had heard. We were awestruck.

For almost eight miles, the Rio twists through a deep gorge. Thick jungle canopy is interspersed with massive white limestone walls. These features rise up steeply for hundreds of feet into neighboring mountains. Bright dashes of color from bromeliads, blossoming trees, and other flora brighten the vivid panorama of tropical greenery.

The scale of the canyon area is overwhelming; it took our senses from “zero” to “stunningly spiritual” in less than five minutes. The Rio Dulce is one of those special places on earth that transcend the physical world and give one the sensation that they are standing before a window to a new dimension. Natural cathedrals of such majesty leave not only permanent images within our minds, but also indelible imprints upon our souls.

It is easy to see why this location was chosen to film the very first Tarzan movie: it is the very essence of “jungle.”

As our engines dutifully pushed Indigo Moon upriver against the outbound current, our electronics registered depths from fifteen feet to over eighty feet in sharp bends of the Rio.

Fishermen worked the waters from dugout canoes (Cayucos) and outboard-driven open boats (launcheras). In some areas, overhanging trees shade sheer rock walls that plunge vertically beneath the Rio’s surface. I watched a teenager in the water let go of a low limb and dive; his fins flipped up and quickly disappeared deep below the surface. I wondered: what is he after?

My thoughts could not be focused for long; all I could do was take deep breaths and attempt to digest the astonishing beauty surrounding me. You don’t merely see the Rio Dulce, you feel it.

Melissa and I began discussing what wildlife is surely in the jungle canopy. I asked: “How many monkeys are looking down at us right now?” Melissa answered with a question: “Is there a jaguar up there too? They live here you know!” We scanned the jungle for a few moments with binoculars but quickly realized we could be staring right at a jaguar and not detect it in the jungle’s dense foliage.

Then we speculated: anyone invading this gorge in ancient times might have experienced a deadly rain of spears and arrows from above. The Maya became very skilled with such weaponry. The canyon is an impenetrable natural ambush site if there ever was one.

Suddenly, a beautiful bright-yellow butterfly sharply turned our thoughts from any further debate on spears and arrows. Following Indigo Moon for a spell, the butterfly danced back and forth, teasing us. It flew around us, only inches away, and darted in and out of the shade of the bimini. Every time it went from shade back to sun, it instantly burst into an impossible brilliance, reminding us of the sun’s intense power here in the tropics.

Exotic birds with bright orange and black plumage crossed the Rio at low altitude, moving quickly from one canopy to the other.

Around the next bend, a dark-skinned Guatemalan woman came into view. She stood thigh-deep in shallows near the shore. With her back to us, she washed clothes against a stone, her fluid movements defying any impression of work. Beautiful, straight black hair flowed down between her bare shoulder blades. A colorful traditional skirt rose from the water’s surface and cinched around her trim waist.

Intoxicating sights were not the only powerful sensations at play. The scent of the Rio’s fresh water, much different than that of the salty sea, melded with the aroma of the jungle: a heavy mixture of perfumed blossoms and new vegetation combined with the pungent reek of dead and decaying vegetation on the jungle’s floor.

Our senses crackled, struggling to form an overall mental mosaic of the gorge: a magical natural wonder of the finest kind. Without a doubt it is an idyllic example of a cruiser’s exotic-jungle dream-destination. The lower Rio Dulce does not disappoint. Even for jaded world cruisers, entering the Rio is a very powerful spiritual experience. It is love at first sight for all who enter.

Unfortunately, the camera can’t really capture the beauty nor the scale, but here are a few shots of our trip up the Rio Dulce;

Buddy armed with cruising guides and charts, begins piloting Indigo Moon up the Rio Dulce.

Light rain falls as we make way toward the canyon.

That little “dot” in the river is a big launch/water taxi, providing scale to the massive walls of the canyon/gorge area.

Melissa takes the helm.

Some of the walls are solid, vertical rock.

Just inland from the canyon area, this launch is full of palm fronds, destined to be a roof somewhere upriver.

We soon entered the Golfete area: a really big, open area that looks to be a huge lake and not a river. It takes a good hour to motor across! The lake was a bit rough, but the winds were behind us and we had a nice ride across it to the upper Rio Dulce.

Once inside the upper Rio Dulce, the water was a lot calmer and we were almost to our destination: Mario’s Marina. In fact, we reached Mario's almost exactly 24 hours after setting sail from West End in Roatan. We were elated to have made it in before the arrival of Tropical Storm Alma and without any drama!

Mario's has a well-established reputation for being cruiser-friendly and hosting many of the main cruisers’ social functions on the Rio Dulce. It’s an active place. We made reservations at Mario’s two years prior to the 2008 hurricane season. We never kept a schedule and often changed plans on our whim and caprice and that resulted in us not making it to the Rio Dulce until the 2009 season. So, Mario's just held our deposit for a couple of years.

A few years later than initially planned, we finally arrived! But they were having a little trouble at the marina. The Rio had just endured a fierce windstorm out of the west. Thrashing the Rio with gusts to 60 knots for a brief period, the storm had ripped away a section of one of Mario's outer docks and it was still in the process of being repaired. Unfortunately, they had no room for us just yet.

Nonetheless, we anchored off from the marina and dinghied in to meet the owner, Jim Ellis, who graciously showed us around. Jim is a retired military helicopter pilot who lives aboard his 41 foot Morgan Out Island ketch named Sea-Yeti.

Now for the tour of Mario’s: Close your eyes. Dream a little dream.

Picture a perfectly-manicured jungle paradise by a lazy river. Swaying palms, thatch-roofed structures, and jungle canopy create an intense contrast between shadow and light from the bright tropical sun.

Humming birds, herons, and other tropical wildlife are close company. Howler monkeys call from across the river. The pace is so laid back that there is no pace. Hammocks span tree trunks here and there, each one strategically placed so as to offer a nap with a unique zillion-dollar view that patiently waits for you to awake.

A sparkling, deep-blue swimming pool stands out amongst the tropical greenery like a jewel on display, partially lit by the bright sun and partially shaded by thick low-hanging canopy.

There is not a worry in the world.

Got the picture? Open your eyes! You are at Mario’s Marina.

As we took in the idyllic beauty of Mario’s we asked Jim if we needed to find space in another marina for a while, until the broken dock could be fixed.

Jim is a great guy with a quiet demeanor and dry sense of humor. He told us to hang out for a little while and he would let us know . . . that means Jim is thinking. Within an hour, he made room for us by moving his personal boat around into the storage area until other arrangements could be made. By nightfall, we were safe and secure in Mario’s Marina . . . in the owner’s personal slip.

Where else in the world would you get service and consideration like that?!

Mario’s Marina as viewed from Indigo Moon at anchor: we reached Mario's by mid-afternoon and by nightfall we were tied up to a dock and safe and sound.

Our weather decision to head into the Rio Dulce was good one. By the next day, Tropical Storm Alma hit and it rained, and rained and rained . . .

And the lightning! Good Lord! You have never heard booms like this before! Not in Louisiana, not in infamous South Florida in August , not even in Venezuela and Colombia! I immediately took note of the fact that tremendous airflow from the trades, and turbulence as it interacts with mountains makes higher voltage, more powerful strikes, and lets you know it with a massive echoing of tremendous thunder off the mountainsides. It rattles your dishes and makes you fear that the Mayan Gods are very, very angry!

A friend also on the Rio, who is a rocket scientist (no kidding), told me he figured that each strike transferred at least one million volts. And if you get hit directly by one of those huge lightning bolts, it’s very bad news. More on that later.

As we awoke the day after our arrival, the weather was very gray and the heavens poured, but we didn’t care. We enjoyed being secure at a dock and hooked up to shore power. We watched DVD movies, read books, napped, and enjoyed the sheer decadence of snuggling under blankets while air conditioning froze us in the humid tropics.

The rainy Rio Dulce as seen from the deck of Indigo Moon; our first morning is a wet one.

Despite the rain, workers go about repairing the damaged dock. Here you see a "Guatemalan pile driver": 4 guys with all their weight on a frame and a sliding hand-driver fashioned from heavy steel pipe, all bearing weight upon and pounding down a new piling.

Ingenuity and fixing things, instead of replacing them, is part of Latin American life everywhere and it was always interesting in the Caribbean to see Latin American methods of dealing with such challenges.

Night fell on day two and so did the rain . . . inch after inch continued to pour from the sky . . . and the Rio began filling up!

The rains continued, eventually to the point that there was little dock left to meet the fenders.

As tropical storm Alma continued to dump several inches of rain a day, it became a problem. Dock fenders have to be able to rest between the boat’s hull and the dock. With scant dock protruding above the surface of the rising waters, and winds blowing us against the dock, fenders had the propensity to pop out, like wet watermelon seeds squeezed between your fingers. That could result in our hull riding up on the dock.

We were side-tied on an outside dock with nothing to tie lines to on the far side of the boat. Making matters worse, there is an underwater petroleum pipeline just off from us and it prevented placing an anchor off our beam to help stand us off the dock.

The real concern was the weekend Guatemalan power yacht captains on BIG power boats. They just LOVE to ride at half-throttle up and down the river and create wakes that can only be categorized as fresh water tsunamis. Such waves severely rocked boats in the marina on occasion. So bad are the wakes that, in rare cases, boats moored a little too closely in marinas will collide and sustain significantly damage. So, it pays to be aware of, and ready for, the monster wakes of the Rio Dulce.

As such, I was worried that if one of those big boat wakes hit us just wrong, it could lift Indigo Moon up and onto the dock and drop her on pilings, severely damaging a hull.

So, it was about time to anchor out until the waters receded, something we were not comfortable with for security reasons. The dockmaster, Marco, was very accommodating, however, and managed to move boats around and protect them all. He, along with the staff, helped me squeeze Indigo Moon safely inside the dock where we could tie her off to the dock on one side and then tie off to the shore on the other, keeping Indigo Moon “spider-webbed” and secure no matter how high the water and wakes got.

They even had to perform some major tree-trimming on a large tree so that the mast of one of the boats would have clearance. No, there was no crew with chains saws. Instead, a young man shinnied up a rickety ladder to about thirty feet up and used a machete to cut big limbs. It took only a few minutes and was amazing to see.

I cannot say enough good things about the Mario’s Marina staff. We have never been treated as well anywhere in the U.S.A. or the rest of the Caribbean. Marco and the rest of the crew get very high marks . . . Marco gets marks just as high as my other all-time favorite dockmaster in the world: Carlos Rojas at Club DePesca in Cartegena, Colombia. In short, Marco is a prince of a guy and we appreciated his great attitude and service!

No boats are outside the dock anymore, the water is too high; all vessels were moved to the inside of the dock and tied off to the shore too, keeping them safely off the dock.

Alma keeps drenching us with more storms and the water gets higher and higher . . , the docks are almost going under in some places.

We are all in hot water, literally: 90 degrees Fahrenheit at the dock!

And just when we got secured in the high water conditions, we lost electricity! Some of the dock connections were going underwater. Concerned about safety, Marco made the right call to turn off the power.

Sure, it’s a bummer to have no power for a few days, but folks on the Rio have an unflagging spirit that stands up to all adversity. We all ran generators on our boats a few hours a day to keep our batteries charged and made the best of it.

Someone quickly turned the concerns about electricity into “fun and games” by starting a wagering calendar "board" where you could pick a date and place your bet as to what day the water would recede enough to allow the electricity to be turned back on.

Nobody won in the end, so all of the proceeds from the high-water wagering was donated to the Christmas fund for gifts for needy Guatemalan children. How cool is that? So, a power outage is turned into Christmas gifts for kids. Such great karma is commonplace amongst folks who live on the Rio Dulce.

Fortunately for future tenants, Marios is putting in some new, higher docks to get a little more advantage on these rare but inconvenient spells of high water.

But, one has to remember, you can’t experience an authentic jungle paradise unless you are actually in the jungle. And infrastructure is not easily pieced together in the real jungle.

At Mario’s, cable television means satellite television with two televisions, each located in different public areas of the marina. One television is located by the pool under an open-air thatch-roofed palapa with sofas and chairs. Another television is in the Cayuco Club restaurant/bar with picnic tables and bench seats, tables and chairs, and a long Cayuco (Guatemalan canoe) that has been made into a long, custom sofa with cushions.

The t.v, room by the pool.

Wireless internet at Mario’s gave Jim fits during our stay. Thieves kept stealing five whole kilometers of cable between the marina and the town of Fronteras. The bandits would chop the sections off between telephone poles for miles and then abscond with the cable, burn it to get the insulation off, and sell the copper core.

After a few episodes of that, the cable company gave up. So, the marina went to satellite internet. But, that service could not provide enough bytes to serve a marina where many folks like to download all the episodes of various television series and movies, etc. At first an honor system was attempted to limit use, but there were phantom downloaders who apparently could not resist trying to download big files.

Just like the internet wars we experienced in Bahia Redonda Marina during our hurricane season stay in Venezuela in 2006, there was a lot of friction and speculation, and gossip and grumbling about who was allegedly hogging all the internet and "ruining things for the rest of us."

It one of the most glaring paradoxes of cruising and escapism. Cruisers and Rio residents alike, will often claim to want nothing more to do with Madison Avenue, television, politics, and the "evil materialism that corrupts minds." But, nonetheless, even while deep in the jungle paradise of the Rio Dulce, many of these escapists still “want their MTV.” And expatriates fly and drive back and forth from the Rio Dulce to the U.S.A. and bring back suitcases and truckloads full of all that stuff they swore they could live without. I'm not knocking them . . . it is just interesting to see the incongruity sometimes.

Anyway, as the pounding of spears about the internet grew louder, Jim expended great effort and industry to try and resolve the internet problem. He even held a town hall type marina meeting about what to do and the final result was to limit an equal number bytes for each computer.

You could check your e-mail, look at the weather radar, and answer e-mails with no problem. If you used up your share on any given day, though, you were done: ‘timed out’ by the software for the rest of that 24 period.

It worked fine for us, but some folks who needed/wanted lots of internet time got used to jumping in their dinghies and taking their laptops to Fronteras to buy time at a local high-speed hotspot, like Bruno’s Restaurant. David of the Second Wind is an I.T. wizard and actually works online. Gary on the yacht Ishi had to have his internet as well, so Melissa and I often saw those guys at Bruno’s. By the way, there is also an internet cafe in Fronteras.

David (L) and Gary, fellow cruisers staying at Mario’s seen here as regular fixtures in town at Bruno’s where they went to get all-day no-holds-barred internet service.

You get used to services being intermittent in the Third World . . . or else you go crazy; it's up to you. We quit seriously worrying about that stuff years ago and just rolled with the punches and got by with our fair share of Mario's bandwidth.

It’s all part of it. For example, the electrical system in the marina was sometimes taxed by the load of all the boats on hot days with all the AC units running on the boats. The electrical supply was intermittent now and them. It never went out for too long, or else the marina would crank the big generator. It was really nice having a backup generator in the marina. Not all the marinas on the Rio have them. Mario's was a good place to be when the power was out.

Even so, it was routine that several times a night we would lose power briefly due to some disturbance down the line.

It usually came back on very quickly, but it meant you had to start all over with loading a DVD and go find the scene in the movie where you lost power . . . just in time to have . . . yes . . . the power “blip” yet again and require you to start over. You simply get used to it and before long you don’t even notice it.

Also, power issues allowed for saying hello to neighbors. Sometimes we would all be out on deck in our pajamas exchanging info on “what exact voltage are you getting?” And after a few minutes of chatting, the power would be restored and we would all go back inside our boats.

For those well accustomed to the Caribbean, such episodes are more casual social events than problems to get upset about.

Of course, yachts’ electrical systems don’t like voltage drops, or rapid on/off cycling of the power. I had to reprogram one AC unit a few times, but luckily we sustained no damage to our systems.

Mario’s backup generator became part of the primary electrical supply when the summer heated up and boats were running AC 24/7

Creative connections were used to try and get electrical connections out of the water; here a Clorox bottle provides a rain cover for a connection that has been pulled from under the dock and raised out of the water.

I always remember the saying an old salt threw my way long ago in the Bahamas: “Buddy, don’t expect anything to be dependable in the Third World; they don’t have utilities, they have futilities.”

And so it was sometimes on the Rio Dulce just like everywhere else, and all the cruisers took it in stride and good humor for the most part. There was a little tension over the internet, but it all worked out mostly because of Jim’s calm demeanor and pragmatic approach to the issue.

The bottom line: there were tremendously more things we liked about the marina, than things we didn’t.

One thing that we absolutely love about Mario’s is the swimming pool. Not all of the marinas on the Rio Dulce have pools, but Mario’s has a nice little pool and it was very refreshing in the summer heat.

Also, Melissa instituted an afternoon water aerobics class just like the one she participated in when we were in Venezuela for hurricane season. The popular hour-long class, made up mostly of women, also provided a good means for visiting and sharing information. Luckily, we had a half-dozen noodle-type floats to loan. We left them behind the bar by the pool for all the participants to use.

Another bonus at Mario’s was the food in the marina's Cayuco Club restaurant. The food is good and reasonably priced, with lunch specials Monday through Thursday. We found some dishes we really liked and would always try to make lunch on the particular days they were served.

If you recall, we reported that the food at Bahia Redonda Marina in Venezuela was so awful we could not stand to eat it. It was nice for a change to be in a marina in the Third World for hurricane season where the food in the restaurant was really good enough to actually eat on a regular, daily basis.

The ladies working in the restaurant were very sweet and would even fix us plates ‘to go’ if we were not feeling well or wanted to eat on the boat: real plates, real silverware, all of which could be returned at your leisure.

In fact, the Marina is run by a group of fine employees from the neighboring village of Esmerelda. Many of them are from the same family. Jim is quick to tell you that THEY are the marina, not him, and that staff takes seriously their responsibility for making the marina the great place that it is.

The Cayuco Club is the open air kitchen, restaurant and bar at Marios’ Marina. It is the scene for all major marina functions: meetings; swap meets on Saturday morning; dominoes on Sundays; afternoon Majong and Scrabble; poker games; Spanish classes; karaoke parties; dance parties; disco night; movie night; birthday parties; live music by the Sweet River Band; and television programs like news and even the 2008 presidential campaign debates.

Mario’s is touted as the epicenter of cruisers’ activities on the Rio Dulce and it’s certainly hard to argue with that!

The family of employees at Mario's: Jim is the tall gringo (left), standing behind the dockmaster, Marco. A nicer marina staff cannot be found anywhere.

Mario’s swimming pool: kept spotlessly clean and clear, it is an inviting oasis of shade and cool to escape the jungle heat and meet with old and new friends.

The marina office and marina store: basic provisions are available right here on site, and most important; there is a never-ending supply of ice cream bars for sale!

The Cayuco Club (hey, that’s Indigo Moon peeking out from the far side, right)

Always pretty and patient, Irma stands ready to grapple with our bad, gringo Spanish and take our lunch order.

The list keeps going: Mario’s provides reasonably priced transportation into Puerto Barrios and Guatemala City. Also, there are free launch services to Fronteras for basic provisioning. Bottom cleaning, boat cleaning, waxing, varnishing and all sorts of services are available on-site.

In fact, Mario’s makes chores so easy that many cruisers have a lot of spare time on their hands. So, what do many do with all those lazy afternoons? Play Dominoes, Scrabble and Majong! Board games are very popular and many an afternoon is spent by cruisers sipping a few cool ones and embroiled in fierce competition. There was a tournament or two as well.

Every afternoon, a few tables in the Cayuco Club would be occupied with the same players, looking for a win. Later in the season, Chuck Hill of Maker’s Match got a poker game going. It lasted only a few days . . . by then Chuck had all the money in Mario's and that was that.

And more: Linda, from the yacht Carina, is a self-taught sharp-cookie who speaks fluent Spanish. She held free Spanish classes a couple of times a week at Mario’s. Cruisers were coming from all over the Rio Dulce to take advantage of the classes. I would be working on the decks of Indigo Moon and hear mass chanting of "restaurant Spanish" such as "Donde esta banos?" and "La Quinta, por favor."; and "Gracias. Cambio para usted."

As cool as Mario’s is, it is surely not the only game in town. It was interesting to find out that various marinas on the river had such different vibes. Cruisers’ opinions varied wildly about which marina was “The Best.”

Mario’s was generally dubbed the ‘Summer Camp’ of the Rio, where there is a non-stop schedule of activities, happy hours, parties, BBQ’s and the like. It is close quarters, and you are expected to participate or be prepared to explain your absence to the group sometimes . . . perhaps bring a note from your Mama. Most folks meant well in their efforts to include everyone, though, and that’s nice.

Of course, there is a Happy Hour every evening at Mario’s and things can get a little wild. Very soon after our arrival, we went to dinner and hung around while the marina’s regular liveaboards and visiting cruisers took in their fill of libations and got a buzz on.

There was music and dancing and at one point, I got a really BIG surprise!

A lady who lives with her husband and granddaughter on a boat in the marina was playing around trying to get me to dance and decided to jump up on the table where I was sitting at a bench seat. Before I could blink, she sat in front of me on the table and faced me, throwing her legs on either side of my head, pinning me right where I sat. She did a full-contact grind in my face (which was pretty red, as was Melissa’s).

That was a new cruising experience.

You just never know what will happen next out here folks! If you go to Mario’s, lookout! She’s fast!

Regardless, we had lots of fun times watching karaoke singers and enjoying the company of many fellow cruisers.

Here are some scenes:

Ladies working in the kitchen sing a very pretty Guatemala favorite.

Watching the debates in the Cayuco Club during the presidential campaign; cruisers manage to avoid fistfights, but a few folks can't quite help scoffing and mumbling insults, revealing their party affiliation.

Claire from Second Wind put on a great flute performance, She is an accomplished music teacher and musician.

As if all that were not enough, the Sweet River Band played live music at Mario’s about once a week. The band has a long and illustrious reputation and has Rocked the Rio for years. The full story is beyond the scope of what can be produced here. The local internet website (Rio Dulce Chisme Vindicator) published a nice feature on the band and you can read it here: Sweet River Band

And then there were other happenings like birthday parties. It takes time and planning for cruisers to pull off such gatherings in the jungle. For example, no one has a freezer big enough on their boat to store enough ice cream for a crowd of thirty. When it was time to get things ready for Katie’s Sixteenth Birthday Party, her parents asked the marina if they could store the ice cream in the restaurant’s freezer. "Sure, no problema!" BUT, the restaurant's staff did not get the word to the evening shift and they started selling the birthday ice cream to dinner patrons!

It all worked out in the end, though.

As time went on, we joked around with Mario’s owner, Jim, who was reading Herman Wouk’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” Wouk’s novel accurately and humorously depicts the twists and turns encountered by a New York public relations man, Norman Paperman, who experienced the concurrent heaven and hell of leaving the city behind to operate a tourist destination in the Caribbean Third World. It’s a great book that has many parallels that define the ups and downs of the cruising dream as well.

Melissa and I would check with Jim now and then to see where he was in the story and whether Paperman's trials and tribulations are an accurate spin on what Jim goes through as a marina owner in Guatemala. We had lots of laughs about it.

Back to the story: ice cream concerns aside, we had a great time at Katie’s party. Here is what it looks like to turn 16 in the jungles of Guatemala:

Katie blows out the candles on her 16th Birthday

Hey, in Latin America there HAS to be a piñata at a Birthday Party

Marco, our dockmaster, and his beautiful wife and daughter enjoyed the party too.

There were lots of happenings at Mario's. Sometimes there would be a special BBQ night at the Cayuco Club. Other times, cruisers would fire up the big BBQ pit up by the pool and cook their own meals, all while the restaurant staff would still come around up by the pool and offer to serve beverages, or perhaps a slice of keylime pie.

Bring your own meat and pop it on the grill. One night we all cooked out on the grill while baseball fans watched some of the World Series on the community television at the pool's palapa.

BBQ pool party in the jungle; look at that monkey cooking dinner!

While the majority of the visiting cruisers and resident boaters hung around in the Cayuco Club for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and most particularly for Happy Hour, a few folks would get up early and walk out into the Guatemalan countryside with us.

We absolutely loved morning walks in the Guatemalan countryside. It was great exercise, but you had to get going early. By 8:30 a.m. it would be too hot to walk. So, it was no surprise that the hard-partiers and those not keen on exercise were not out there at 6:00 a.m. to undertake a challenging hike for an hour and a half.

The early morning crowd ready to go for a walk - Melissa in the center.

We enjoyed our morning walks more than anything else. It was unfortunate that our walks were interrupted by security incidents that occurred during our stay. One morning we were set to walk and a boater who lives in the marina came by and told us not to go. Police were in the nearby village of Esmerelda searching for criminals involved in an attack on cruisers (the Drydens). Our morning walks were interrupted once again for a week or so after one of our guards was killed.

Despite these unfortunate occurrences and the resulting increase in awareness, it did not stop us from walking again after things cooled down. In fact, we never felt threatened in the least, nor picked up any bad vibes whatsoever from anyone we encountered in Esmerelda and on the pipeline road beyond. While on these walks, we were out in the middle of nowhere, certainly on our own with not even a stick for protection, but we never felt strange about it.

One time, out past “hill number four” on the Pipeline Road, we came upon a teenager whose car had stalled in a valley. I asked him in my limited Spanish: “Problema? Gasolina?” The answer: “Batteria.”

I motioned for him to get in and we would push. His face brightened. Melissa and I (and Katie from Second Wind) got together and pushed his little car . . . he popped the clutch and it fired! As he sped up and over the next hill, he waved all the way.

Another time we came upon a man with a machete and he was bleeding from somewhere, his pant leg stained with blood. Again in my poor Spanish: “Amigo, Problema? Necissita Doctore? Emergencia? Dolor es Malo?” Etc. The guy managed to get the point across that he thought was ok, not in too bad a pain, but thanked us for asking about it, to which I answered “Buenas Suerte, Amigo. Lo lomento.” (I hope that can be understood as “good luck, friend, I’m sorry you are hurt”).

One Sunday, we met a couple and a young boy, several miles out in the country. They were walking toward Esmerelda from somewhere far off. They were very nicely dressed and it was clear: the woman, with a live chicken under her arm and with a neatly-dressed young boy at her heels was on the way to Sunday dinner. The man was dragging his feet and not too happy. It seemed pretty certain they were on a journey of several miles on foot to his mother-in-law’s for Sunday dinner. Some things don’t have to be translated.

One day three guys were swinging sharp machetes in the hot sun, cutting grass by hand along the pipeline. Probably making a terribly low wage, they were nonetheless cutting with a pace and precision that makes one wonder how they could maintain it for five minutes much less all day. They exchanged friendly “Holas” with us.

We would often see one particular man on the road who supervises some of the work being done in the fields. Each time we saw him, we would have a "mini language lesson" with him. He would tell us how to say something in Spanish and we would tell him how to say something in English: like the color of his truck (black/negro) or the creature on a leash (dog/perro). He had a great smile and was always happy to see us coming.

Here are some scenes from the town of Esmerelda and the pipeline road where we walked/hiked through the beautiful countryside of Guatemala:

One morning an Esmerelda teenager shows off his catch: a nice tarpon

Extreme Guatemalan poverty sometimes means living in shacks such as these, some have exterior walls of sticks; others are cinder block.

We meet locals walking through the town of Esmerelda .

No, he's not dead! But from a distance he always looked like road kill. This pitiful dog was always sleeping at the same spot in the middle of the road. We called him “Underdog” because of his terrible underbite.

Once beyond the town, the pipeline rose up and over steeps hills (nine of them) and through pastures and woods. It was a perfect walk with enough aerobics to get your heart really pumping. We were in good shape, considering all the walking, boat work, and swimming pool aerobics.

Here are a few more scenes from the pipeline road:

These little guys got born during our stay

A spiral slit in the bark of the tree bleeds latex rubber into holding cups; there was a grove of these trees just at the edge of Esmerelda.

Buddy and Melissa on hill number five on the pipeline road .

Cruisers on a morning walk: what a strange sight to see for the locals. Most people in Guatemala don’t walk for exercise. They walk because they have to get somewhere.

Skinny cattle; grass-fed and under pressure from the heat, they are not very fat but the Brahma breed are one of the only breeds that can take the intense heat of the tropics.

High water rushing over the road one morning required us to “walk the line.”

Lots of dead snakes are seen on the road, always sans head from a Guatemalan’s sharp machete. Of course, there are poisonous snakes in Guatemala.

Real cowboys in Guatemala . . . during our travels, we saw many feats of roping, herding and sorting cattle by the skilled cowboys of Guatemala.

No baby strollers here on the pipeline road . . . a couple of miles out of Esmerelda these two tykes get rides in wheel barrows, headed to who knows where.

We walked so much the soles were coming off my New Balance shoes. You cannot buy fancy sports shoes on the Rio Dulce, that’s for sure; so I used 3M 5200 adhesive and clamps to reattach the soles.

The beauty of the Rio Dulce has a power that overcomes all adversity. Even during the height of unrest and intense social friction that occurred in 2008 as a result of the serious security incidents that occurred during the season, one needed only to look out across the river’s many vistas to feel instantly at peace: a cayuco glides by, paddled in a slow, fluid rhythm that is mandated by the cadence of the Rio itself; cumulus clouds cast a lazy parade of shadows upon the insistently green mountainsides; a Guatemalan fishermen flings his cast net with the precision and grace of a professional matador handling a cape against the bull; a bright green snake glides by, leaving perfectly identical “S’s” in his wake.

All these things, and a thousand others, seem directly linked to a central, natural peace that transcends the whole. When viewed through that lens it is no surprise that so many people fall head over heels in love with the Rio and call it home.

Here are some scenes from the Rio Dulce:

Water lilies (courtesy of Mark Wheeler)

Walking on water (courtesy of Mark Wheeler)

Swimming snake (Courtesy of Mark Wheeler)

Bright orange eyes (Courtesy of Mark Wheeler)

Morning over the Rio, as seen from Indigo Moon in Mario's Marina.

Currents boil under the bridge at Fronteras. Tourists stop at the top of the bridge to take photographs and look out upon the Rio Dulce. Also, bungie jumpers set up shop at its peak now and then. And more: sometimes the weekend crowd of upscale Guatemalans fly their twin engine airplanes under the bridge just for fun. At the foot of the bridge on the Fronteras side there is always a group of women washing clothes in the shallows. On the El Relleno side of the bridge, fishermen often try their luck from the riverbank. And, from above there is a loud, continual growling sound of heavy truck traffic caused by the trucks' use of engine compression-release valves to slow their descent from the bridge.

A pretty-well stocked Yamaha outboard store is housed out over the river: Paddle up! Motor away!

Situated up river of the bridge is Tortugal Marina. It is managed by Texan cruisers, Janet and Russ, who run an outstanding operation. The marina is also a land-based resort that entertains lots of international guests who arrive by bus. We were told by boaters staying there that the constant flow of new, international guests makes for interesting conversations with these fellow travelers who are always curious about our lives on a boat.

Tortugal does not have a lot of liveaboard cruisers during the hurricane season (at least while we were on the Rio). Most of the boating clientele leave their boats in the marina’s care and travel home for the summer. This may be a plus for some boaters who prefer more seclusion. Also, Tortugal is located upriver from the town of Fronteras (and its dirty runoff), so you can actually swim in the river at Tortugal.

Last we heard, plans for a Tortugal swimming pool were in the works. They also have good internet, a television room, extensive library, and pool table. The top quality food at the open air restaurant (overseen by Janet and Russ) is absolutely delicious, but a bit pricey! We tried to make it to Tortugal to "splurge" once a week for lunch and it was always a fun outing.

Tortugal Marina, one of the northernmost marinas on the Rio.

BBQ chicken pizza at Tortugal . . . Hey, get your own! This one’s all mine!

And then there is Tijax Marina which is also very cool. It has an impressive restaurant and swimming pool as well. Dedicated to eco-tourism and conservation of the environment, the owner of Tijax, Eugenio Gabbato, is very active in preserving the natural resources of the Rio Dulce. I had the pleasure of meeting him once and he is quite a nice fellow.

In addition to his efforts to preserve the environment, Eugenio has also expended great efforts to help institute new security patrols on the Rio Dulce. He is a well-recognized champion for the betterment of the Rio Dulce on all fronts.

At Tijax Marina and resort, there are trails and suspension bridges back into the swamps

Impressive restaurant at Tijax Marina

There are all the “big” Rio marina operators, but there are also small “Mom and Pop” ones too. Captain John has accommodations for only a few boats to med moor behind his house. If a very small crowd and peace and quiet is your preference, this is a great spot to pick. Captain John is an American who has made the Rio his home. He is a very accomplished mariner who has even designed mega yachts. He has all sorts of great stories to tell. They also have a swimming pool.

Also, some folks really like Catamarans Marina, reported to be the oldest on the Rio. The proprietor is said to be extremely accommodating. In fact, he put on NFL parties and invited all the cruisers on the Rio, even supplying free appetizers. There is always something fun going on somewhere on the Rio!

Want to get totally away from everything, yet still have a venue available to have fun and party hard? Then Texan Bay is the place to be. Mike and Sherrie, the Texan proprietors, have managed to create probably the most unusual marina of all. It is just inland from the canyon of the lower Rio Dulce and is off in its own picture-perfect little bay.

Sure, it is far away from provisioning (too far to easily go by dinghy) and they don’t have quite all of the amenities of full service marinas farther upriver in the marina district, but the remoteness is part of the magic and allure.

The parties at Texan Bay are truly famous. The hospitality is famous. The chicken enchiladas are famous. The staff (all residents of tiny village nearby), are famous. The security is famous (they have never had ANY crime there . . . no outboards stolen, much less anything else untoward going on). I guess the easiest way to describe it is that it’s just plain famous!

Yep, no matter where else you go on the Rio, you simply MUST stop for a while in Texan Bay and meet these awesome folks and experience the miracle they have created in the jungle. It makes a great staging area to arrive and depart from the Rio. When we departed the Rio, we stopped and anchored in Texan Bay mid-day with several other cruisers departing the Rio. Mike gave several of us boat crews a ride to Livingston (for a reasonable price) in his launchera and we completed all our paperwork and checked out.

By so doing, we left at first light and did not even have to stop in Livingston the next morning, saving lots of time and insuring that we could make it the full distance to safe harbors in Belize before sundown. Texan Bay and Mike's services makes it all very convenient.

In sum, no matter what your tastes, there really is a place for everybody on the Rio Dulce; you just need to pick a spot that suits your fancy.

Turning our attention back to the Rio Dulce in general, while cruising around in the dinghy or by launchera on the Rio, no matter which way you look, there is always something interesting to see. The river reminds me of the intensely beautiful swamps and rivers of south Louisiana, but the backdrop of mountains is an added feature that makes the experience unique for me.

If you buy a skiff that is faster and more comfortable than a dinghy, you can travel up various tributaries for miles and miles and miles. It’s a “River Rat’s” paradise, and as a Louisiana River Rat who grew up on a large oxbow lake in South Louisiana, it felt just like home to me in many ways.

After a heavy rain, water from the mountains cause an interface of muddy water in the Rio

Like everywhere else on the world’s waterways, some camps are not camps. There are mansions and all sorts of very upscale private holiday homes on the Rio Dulce. One that caught my eye had its own tropical bird aviary and a private island with a glassed-in gazebo media room: plasma television, air conditioning, comfy sofas . . . all in the middle of the jungle and with 360 views.

Very nice holiday home

Media room, complete with a logo etched in the glass: “La Isla”

Want to build your own Wonder in the Wilderness? There is lots of property for sale on the Rio Dulce

At the far inland end of the upper Rio Dulce it narrows as it rounds a point just before opening up into huge Lake Isabal.

At these narrows, out on a point is the Castillo San Felipe, an old fort. We spent a day with other cruisers walking from Tortugal Marina to the Fort. Here is a look at sights we saw at the Castillo and along the way:

Cruisers at the castle! Hurry up! Close the gate!

Nice inner courtyard

View from the top, across the narrows

Girls Gone Wild!

Looking downriver, cannons along the shore of the Castillo

We barely got out of the fort. A tour bus with about two hundred students showed up and seized the fort just as we departed.

As we walked back toward Fronteras in the scorching mid-day heat, we made a few stops along the way.

We lingered for a minute at Abel’s boatyard. They pull boats up on a railway and sandblast all the bottom paint. They do a lot of bottom jobs on visiting yachts, especially catamarans that are too wide to haul out at RAM marine (the other yard on the Rio) Abel’s grinds and sandblasts off poison bottom paint and washes it all directly into the Rio Dulce. Gee, that can’t be good for the environment.

Abel’s boat yard

Right next to Abel’s, fishermen mend their nets.

Our next stop along our walk was the River Mansion resort. WOW! What a place. It is a residential development with a riverside resort and hotel complex of surprising scale.

Swimming pool

With full-size wind surfers and sailboats in the rafters this place is HUGE . . . yet spooky and deserted.

All of the above segments help you get a feel for the Rio Dulce area. Now, let’s take a look at Fronteras, the one and only town on the upper Rio Dulce where cruisers from all along the river’s marinas travel by water taxi or dinghy to do their provisioning.

Fronteras was not one of our favorite towns in El Caribe, to be honest. It is really not a “town” as much as it is a springing-forth of kiosks and buildings on a major highway at the foot of the huge bridge that crosses the Rio Dulce.

Big 18-wheelers, cattle trucks, buses, tanker trucks and every other sort of heavy traffic pushes through the narrow little two-lane highway that is “main street.” Dirt, dust and cow manure are ground to fine powder by the traffic.

Fellow cruisers, who have been on the Rio Dulce many times, gave us an initial tour of Fronteras upon our arrival. Their instructions included:

“Don’t stand too close to passing cattle trucks; one time a cow took a dump out the side and some of it went down my wife’s blouse.”

“Right here on the steps at the foot of the bridge, there are always guys peeing in public, so don’t be surprised at the sights and smells.”

“Be very careful on the road at the base of the bridge when it is raining; if a cattle truck starts to go up the grade, all the wet manure on the floor of the cattle trailer will run out of the back and send a tsunami of wet cow poop over the whole street.”

“Never park your dinghy anywhere but at Bruno’s and lock it. One guy parked his boat somewhere else, and even though he locked it and was gone into a tienda ten steps away for one minute, when he returned a new battery and bilge pump was gone.”

“Never use the ATM machine that takes your card. Thieves always jury-rig it to not return the card and they rip you off.”

“Look out for pickpockets; they are very good in Fronteras.”

“The whorehouse is just down the street if you are into that sort of thing.”

The delineation of Fronteras’ attributes went on and on.

When we first arrived, there seemed to be more tourists, especially more young backpackers and land travelers passing through. By the end of our stay, we saw less and less tourists in town. The reason could be that summer break was over for students and they were back at school.

Also, there was a weird vibe that we and other cruisers began to feel. One fellow cruiser reported being intimidated by an armed man at the grocery store. We were followed one day by a very dirty and up-to-no-good freaky guy (who is supposedly known as a menace to others as well).

To shop in Fronteras, you have to forage: hit all the produce stands to find fresh stuff, hit the grocery to get meat, stop at various little tiendas to find sodas and candy, and go to the Farmacia for medicine. You never know what you’ll get on any given day. Produce was best on certain days and after we figured out the schedule we did better.

Also, it was a very pleasant surprise that the local grocer, Dispensa, is allegedly affiliated with WalMart’s distribution network and they get very good ground beef . . . the best tasting we found in the whole Caribbean other than in the Virgin Islands.

One bright spot in Fronteras we liked a lot was Ricky’s Pizza. Ricky is a real character, a Cuban who married a beautiful Guatemalan lady. They run the shop together. Ricky was a trouble-shooter for a major power yacht manufacturer and wowed us with tales of traveling the world to take care of warranty issues on huge multi-million dollar yachts.

Going to Ricky’s when he is there is a unique experience, he chats and wants to know where you are from, puts on a stand-up comedy routine and tells jokes, and most notably, tells you to "come in anytime you are in Fronteras and sit and rest, and use the restroom even if you don’t buy anything." Also, he offers to help in anyway possible with anything you need while on the Rio Dulce. He’s a Cuban, so that explains a lot. I never met a Cuban I did not like.

When I asked how a Cuban wound up in Guatemala on the Rio, he gazed upon his wife and smiled: "It was because I met a girl.” Anyway, he was extremely hospitable to us, plus they actually make great pizza. So, a trip to town was always made more enjoyable by a visit to see Ricky.

We also found an ice cream stand in Fronteras called Serita’s that we liked to frequent. Sometimes we would sit out front with our ice cream and people watch. You can ALWAYS count on us to find the pizza and ice cream.

Here is a look:

“Pee Pee Alley’ this is the most popular public bathroom for men . . . the stairs at the foot of the bridge. These pungent steps lead down to the driveway to Bruno’s Restaurant, the location of the only "cruiser approved" dinghy dock in town.

The entrance to the Dispensa Grocery store . . . maybe a fresh coat of paint is in order

Melissa at the checkout in the Dispensa store; note the piñatas for sale, hanging from the ceiling

Where's the beef?! Well it’s hanging right there! Refrigeration is of no concern here at this butcher shop.

Typical produce stand on the busy street; sometimes it’s fresh and sometimes it’s rotten . . . you just never know. Our odds improved when we learned the delivery days and when most fresh produce arrives.

Typical little tienda down one of the alleyways.

Beans and rice by the pound.

Truck traffic, dirt and grime.

Buses have a tight fit and pedestrians must use extreme care on the busy, narrow highway.

Young backpackers passing through Fronteras.

Street vendors line the side of the highway, selling fast foods ("comida rapida").

Fried chicken stand on the shoulder of the road is a favorite!

Busy, busy, busy!

In Fronteras at Ricky's Pizza: Melissa and I take a break from the mid-day heat and the busy street.

Back at the boat, I repair a brand new, yet defective power strip I just bought from a street vendor . . . all the "high class" welders stick out their pinky finger when soldering!

A trip to Fronteras became a once-a-week "work day" for us and nothing more. It was a two mile dinghy ride and if the afternoon trades kicked in, it could be a pretty rough ride getting back to Mario's in the large, open fetch of the river. Once home at the boat, we would sort out our purchases and do what was necessary to get all our chores done and put away and then breathed a sigh of relief to be done with Fronteras for a few days.

There was one exception that would lure us into an additonal trip now and then: Bruno's Restaurant, where all the dinghies dock, put on a Sunday afternoon BBQ that was really good! A big plate of good food at a fair price. So, sometimes we would go to the Bruno's BBQ and then get right back in the dinghy and go take a nap on The Moon or have a dip in the pool. It made for a great, lazy Sunday on the Rio.

And while cruisers and expatriates have carved out a good life on the Rio Dulce, many of them do much more than just focus on their own needs. As we will see in this next section, there is a steady flow of gringo generosity on the Rio Dulce.

Philanthropy in the Jungle

The poor human rights conditions, extreme poverty, and the lack of governmental services in Guatemala presents a golden opportunity for those who want to turn their efforts toward helping their fellow man, all as follows:

A. Gringos and locals working hand-in-hand

The Rio Dulce community of expatriates and local boaters are to be commended for having developed an extremely good relationship with the locals over the last several decades. The Rio’s gringo community has grown into it and has been very generous and active in support of the local community. They often ban together to raise money to help the children and the poor of the area.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of one example of what goes on:

Last year, Captain John, along with several others in Guatemala, put together a program to fly in doctors to address hearing problems amongst poor Guatemalan children. The effort included flying in 18 doctors to Guatemala City and then providing transportation to remote areas to provide hearing aids and other treatment to children in need. There were 125 children in the Izabal/ Rio Dulce area alone who have hearing problems and needed help. But for these types of private efforts, nothing would be done to help these children.

In short, there are wonderful and generous people in the local boating community on the Rio Dulce who are some of the finest folks you’ll ever meet. They routinely donate great effort and industry, in both time and money, to undertake heroic efforts to bring desperately needed help to the needy in Guatemala. There are quite a few just like Captain John on the Rio.

While we were there, "newbie" visiting cruisers tried to help organize a 5K Walk to raise money for the poor school in the little village of Esmerelda behind Mario’s Marina. Spearheading the effort was Claudie of catamaran Tandem.

We were all rallying to support the idea, but Claudie ran into trouble because she needed a permit to hold the event on the pipeline road. She ran into so much red tape that it killed the whole idea. For those of us new to the Rio, it was sometimes frustrating because we did not have the local connections to deal with a recalcitrant Third World bureaucracy.

But, all that aside, there is one man who stands above all others: The Jungle Medic!

B. The Jungle Medic

He’s a living legend. Brian Buchanan is well known as the Jungle Medic. He is a paramedic who has been rendering medical care to Guatemalans for years.

Teams of doctors, medical students (routinely from L.S.U.) and others fly in and lend a hand on various campaigns to bring health care to hundreds of poor Guatemalans who depend solely on the Jungle Medic.

Here is a link to the Jungle Medic’s web site: http://www.junglemedicmissions.org

On the Mission Statement, Brian describes the problem in straightforward terms: “There are 137 villages in the Rio Dulce Izabal area of Guatemala that have no medical or dental care at all and only subsist on corn tortillas for their three meals a day.”

It is a dire situation. The Guatemalan poor are amongst the most impoverished in the Americas. Gautemala is alleged by some to have the worst distribution of wealth in the world.

This is the “real deal” when it comes to helping others in true need. You don’t have to send donations to other hemispheres to make a difference! So, the next time you are thinking of donating to a good cause or charity, please consider supporting the Jungle Medic. You can make a spectacular and direct difference in the lives of these very poor villagers who have no other help available at present.

Hurricane Season means Work Season

Being stuck in a marina for months during hurricane season provides a golden opportunity to really accomplish a lot of fabulous work on your boat (if you like to do that sort of thing and can obtain first-rate materials).

Cruisers’ comfort zones about maintenance and neatness are just as varied as your land-based neighbors back home. You know what I mean. Some “Yard of the Month” folks manicure their yards daily, maintain beautiful, seasonal landscaping, and keep the paint brand new.

Others never lift a finger (except maybe their middle finger to the Homeowners’ Association) and they defiantly let their property run down into a place that looks like The Munsters must live there.

And then there is everyone else in between.

Melissa and I are “Yard of the Month” types by nature. That means lots of work! While in Mario’s Marina I did my usual “hurricane season routine” and worked on Indigo Moon for hours, days and weeks on end.

As usual, I caught significant flack for making other cruisers in the marina feel guilty about not working on their boats as hard as I did. A couple of boats in the marina were junk heaps. Some were very fine yachts. Some were turned into vegetable gardens. Some may never go to sea again. Indigo Moon sparkled.

One cruiser walking the docks on her way to another full afternoon of dominoes half-jokingly shot barbs at me one day: “Damn it Buddy! What’s wrong with you?! You can hire somebody to do that!”

I looked down at the complicated forestay assembly of stainless steel I was polishing into brilliant jewelry and shouted back: “No, you can’t! You can’t hire anybody to do THIS!”

Even though my results were immediately recognizable as superior to locally available work (not just on the Rio, but Ft. Lauderdale too), and said results were acknowledged by many of my peers in the marina, I was still referred to as a sick workaholic who is anal retentive, relentless, and has the personality of a possessed perfectionist with unreasonable expectations. Hey, I already knew all that.

Say what you will, but my character “defect” of enjoying hard work and accomplishment sure does make for a pretty catamaran!

The good news, of course, is that all of us on the Rio were free do whatever we enjoyed and that is what cruising is all about. The Rio is one of the few destinations in El Caribe that simply does not make any demands.

As for the topic of goods and services for yachts in the Third World, you always hear talk about great, cheap parts and services in the Caribbean Third World. The Rio Dulce is no exception.

Talk to a Rio promoter and they will tell you how the boat yards do great bottom jobs, that there is a “West Marine” where you can order all the parts and supplies in the West Marine catalog. There are electricians, diesel mechanics, shipwrights, welders, machinists, canvas makers and the like on the Rio Dulce. Some are really skilled. Some will ruin your boat (just like back home in the U.S.A.) Go slow and ask around extensively before calling anyone to help you. And don’t pay up-front.

Two different catamaran owners got a few holes blown in the gelcoat of their hulls by an aggressive sandblasting job.

The bottom paint on one fellow cruiser’s boat crinkled and fell off almost immediately. Turns out, the paint dealer in Puerto Barrios had cut out the expiration date on the paint can labels and sold it anyway. When we left the Rio, the "jury was still out" on whether the cruiser got a refund. The cost to strip the defective paint and try again sent the price of the work well over the cost of the same work in the U.S.A.

I tried to use the so-called West Marine on the Rio. The chandlery has no official connection with West Marine, but they order things through West Marine’s “Port Supply” catalog. It takes six weeks to get an order in. I planned my usual, annual hurricane season refurbishing of The Moon and needed two cans of Captain’s Varnish, a bottle of "On and Off" acid to remove gelcoat stains, a gallon of "Tuff-E-Nuff" cleaner, and a tube of "Flitz" stainless steel polish.

Six weeks later my order arrived. Poorly packed, the On and Off acid’s plastic bottle had been cracked and leaked all over the cans of varnish, ruining one. The Flitz tube was acid-etched but survived the acid bath. And the Tuff-E-Nuff was simply omitted from the order.

Of course, the folks were apologetic and only asked me to pay for what was good. They cheerfully volunteered to try again and to get another order in another six weeks. But I would be gone from the Rio by then. So, it was an exercise in frustration and prevented me from doing the quality of work I planned.

To put things in perspective, these very basic boat care items are always in stock at West Marine and virtually every other marine store in the U.S.A. (or a day or two away in their warehouse system). One ten-minute trip in the U.S.A. can turn into a twelve week affair on the Rio Dulce (that is assuming the second order would have been successful).

In short, the Rio Dulce is no worse, nor better than the rest of El Caribe in the parts and services department. It is Third World dependable, just as any Caribbean-experienced cruiser would have expected it to be.

Friends on another catamaran tried for two months to get 3M fiberglass restorer and wax. I think buying plutonium and rocket-propelled grenade launchers would have been just as easy.

In spite of these routine, run-of-the-mill niggling down-island nuisances, I plowed ahead and used what varnish I had. I spent days and days waxing, varnishing and polishing The Moon. I serviced all engines and rebuilt a few parts. I did some canvas work and re-stitched a few things, washed fenders that had turned black with jungle mold, and basically repeated another year of my hurricane season routine: use the boring marina “hurricane jail sentence” to bring Indigo Moon into the best seaworthy and cosmetic condition possible under the circumstances.

Using a heat gun and sharp scraper to strip old varnish.

Getting new coats of varnish on the table.

Polishing stainless in the tropical sun, a fishing rod holder becomes an umbrella stand.

Scrubbing the hulls in preparation for waxing and buffing.

Dealing with nasty black mold on the dock fenders.

Atop the mast, servicing instruments, I look down to see Melissa wave.

One way to avoid the extreme effort of Bristol yacht maintenance in the jungle is to turn your decks into a tomato garden and don’t do anything to the boat. But take note: you will pay a price if you try and sail that vegetable garden one day in the future. Boats don’t like being ignored and things stop working very quickly if systems are not aggressively exercised and fastidiously maintained.

Haulout at RAM Marine

In addition to my boat work at the marina, I also hauled out to change the saildrive oil in the lower units on Indigo Moon. RAM Marina is a brand-new beautiful yard on the Rio Dulce in Shell Bay near Fronteras. They have a concrete lot and yard area, new fuel docks, new convenience store, nice travelift and they offer a truly first-world haulout experience.

It was tight for us in the lift, though. With less than two inches on each side of the boat, it was a very stressful experience while trying to keep the lift’s tackle off the topsides. We managed to suffer only a minor nick in a rub rail . . . we were lucky.

The deal was $350 U.S. for two hours and then get splashed again, leaving no time for complications. Having done this servicing many times, I laid out the parts and tools like a surgeon and made sure I was ready to go!

Here is a look:

The cockpit table with all supplies and tools ready to service the saildrives. zinc anodes, and propellers.

In order to inspect saildrive oil drain plug o-rings, I use Melissa’s SubSee magnifying glass that is designed to examine tiny marine specimens while SCUBA diving. I make sure I have perfect o-rings ready to go!

There's even LESS clearance on the other side!

The yard manager, a very affable and super-skilled guy, shouts rapid-fire Spanish, instructing swimmers where to place the lifting straps and to go ahead and hook the straps up underwater (a superhuman feat) . . . it’s too tight a fit to do anything else.

Ok! The straps are secured and the swimmers get out of the way

Despite the oppressive heat, I had the job done in record time and only an hour later we are ready . . . The Moon made her way back to the water about an hour after the job was complete.

I was truly impressed with the yard at RAM Marine: clean, modern, and very friendly folks. It was a delightful surprise.

Considering we were done early and had some time to spare, we looked around the yard a bit. Ken and Roberta Heinrichs on the fabulous Lagoon 37, Second Wind, were doing some scheduled maintenance too. Yes, there were two "Second Wind" yachts on the Rio, so Ken and Roberts called their boat "Second Wind Two" while on the Rio.

The catamaran Second Wind on the hard at RAM Marina.

Also in the yard was the 36 Wildcat named Tandem. It sustained terrific damage due to a direct lightning strike while on a mooring in front of Tortugal Marina. Whenever the big thunderstorms rolled through the Rio Dulce, all boaters (and especially catamaran owners) started saying "Hail Marys" and "Praying the Rosary" so to speak.

Alleged lightning statistics claim that catamarans get hit more often than monohulls. We heard that a few catamarans were hit in Mario’s Marina in years past. All you can do is hope and pray and keep your fingers crossed when shockingly powerful summer thunderstorms roll off the mountains.

We had already seen a trimaran that was severely damaged in Texan Bay Marina, far down river near the upper end of the lower Rio Dulce and the Golfete.

Back end of a trimaran in Texan Bay Marina was blown completely off by a lightning strike.

For the catamaran Tandem, the "worst case" happened to it as well. A tremendous, direct lightning strike hit the mast just at dawn. It was taking on water and made way immediately to RAM Marine and got an emergency haul out.

I asked the owners, Claudie and Dietmar, if I could put the details here on the Indigo Moon site and they gave me permission to do so.

Here is a look:

Claudie’s hand provides scale: over 100 holes with spider webbing were created in the hulls when the voltage ravaged the boat to get to ground.

One hole looks like it was made by a 22 caliber rifle bullet.

Claudie inspecting damage as more storm clouds form in the intense tropical heat of the day.

On the starboard transom, just above the waterline, a huge hole is blown out and the surrounding area is burned black; it is obvious that a fantastically powerful main charge exited the hull here.

A solar panel looks like it was shot with a 12 gauge shotgun.

A junction box for the solar panel wiring: it exploded.

One of the instruments at the helm had its housing's bezel blown off (right) .

In the forward port head, the entire cabin sole was blown off, as was the door to the cabinet under the sink ; going beyond mere electrical damage, these Rio Dulce strikes are so powerful that structural damage is a significant part of what can be expected.

The stern light exploded.

Can you even imagine being aboard during such a lightning strike? Claudie and Dietmar were shaken, but unhurt after the strike. And no one could have taken this more in stride than Claudie. She is a fabulous French cruiser whose positive spirit surpasses all adversity. Seen here, she sits aboard damaged Tandem, but instead of crying she is smiling the most genuine of smiles and laughing with Dietmar. What a great lady!

The silver lining for them is that insurance covered their damages, the yard at RAM marine was able to effect the necessary repairs, and, or course, they were very lucky to have escaped any injuries while being aboard during such a wildly violent event.

The stuff that True Grit cruisers are made of: Claudie and Dietmar smile despite having their catamaran significantly damaged by a direct lightning strike!

Life in the Marina

We led charmed lives in Mario’s for sure. But, there were still a few less-than-pleasant occurrences for me.

For one, I caught the first respiratory infection I ever had in the four years we have been cruising. A "really bad bug" made its way around the marina, striking many, and some folks even got it twice. I spent ten days in the rack, running low-grade fever and suffering severe congestion and weakness before the bug finally let me go. Melissa was next, and she too suffered what I came to call “Mario’s Malaria.”

If that was not enough, I got bit on the hip by a brown recluse spider while filling one of our water tanks. I was in the throws of Mario’s Malaria, but we needed water. As I sat on the forward deck in my pajamas (boxer shorts and a t-shirt), I felt a nip under my shirt and sure enough a brown recluse spider had crawled under my shirt and bitten me on the hip.

Getting sick or injured is never fun, even when it means a convenient walk out of your house to the car and a drive straight to the doctor or E.R.

On the Rio, getting to the doctor’s office or hospital means a boat ride up the Rio, then a 45 minute bus ride to Morales, or perhaps a five hour bus ride if you need to see a specialist in Guatemala City. It made me nervous, considering I was so sick for a few days.

Luckily for me, Steve and Gayle Long, and their sons Matthew, David and Josh were in the slip next to us at Mario’s aboard La Rina Gayle, a 485 Island Packet. Melissa learned that Steve is a doctor and Gayle is a nurse, so she went over to see if they would mind taking a look at me. Steve and Gayle were kind enough to come over and examine the spider bite, check out my respiratory infection and dispense advice.

Dr. Steve said I would live. Brown recluse bites can be extremely serious, though, depending on how you react personally. You can wind up with terribly large patches of necrosis and huge disfiguring skin grafts. I was extremely lucky and only wound up with a nasty bite and small area of dead tissue that filled in within two weeks, leaving a small, permanent scar the size of a dime . . . a Rio Dulce keepsake that I was not exactly in the market for.

If you want to see the bite, here is a link: Brown Recluse Spider Bite

I used the “rack time” while sick time to read about Guatemala and try different Guatemalan over-the-counter flu remedies from the little farmacia in Fronteras. They call the malady of colds and flu the “gripe” (Grip-pay) and I tried various Anti-gripal medicines.

Medicine from town -- some of this stuff is STRONG!

Mercifully, I have air conditioning and get to rest in peace while fighting the “Gripe” a.k.a. Mario’s Malaria. I read the book Bananas! and learned about Guatemala's civil war and the United Fruit Company.

We also managed to have lots of fun in the marina. We made lots of new friends and spent great times with old friends too.

The usual suspects like Chuck and Terri (and their boxer Sgt. Vincent Carter) on Maker’s Match were in the marina, as were Steve and Sue on Evensong. Tom and Colleen on Unplugged were also there. With such old friends and cell mates from the 2006 hurricane season in Venezuela, and also the 2007 hurricane season in Bonaire, we found ourselves having another storm season reunion.

We made many new friends too, such as Bob and Trish Meredith who live on their boat Barnacle in Mario's Marina. Bob has a little ski-boat runabout tender for Barnacle, named “Barney”, and he was kind enough to take me on a tour of the upper Rio Dulce.

Also, Bob and Trish took us to the Mayan Ruins at Tikal and, on a different occasion, to an off-the-beaten-path waterfall. They are avid Mayan historians and they have traveled over 35,000 miles in Central America in their Toyota 4 Runner. They use the Rio Dulce as home base (more on the Merediths later in the report during our inland travel segments).

Also, new cruising friends Tom and Kathy Nunn onboard their 45 Leopard catamaran Jumbie were delightful. Retired from careers as a Moorings Charter captain/mate team in the British Virgin Islands, they are now enjoying cruising their own 45 foot cat. Tom is also a marine surveyor and found himself in high demand on the Rio Dulce, despite not really intending to work. Such a nice guy, he was compelled to perform surveys anyway, the first of which was needed by Claudie on Tandem after the lightning strike.

Fabulous new friends, Tom and Kathy: the "coolest of the cool" aboard their catamaran Jumbie.

Other enjoyable cruisers included the Wheeler family on the yacht Mima: Mark, Susan and their two kids, Amy and Marshall. They are enjoying a sailing adventure with the whole family and both Mark and Susan write and publish articles about their journey, even writing a column for their local newspaper back home.

They were amongst the three boats anchored together (Mima, Dream Odyssey, and C-toy) when pirates attacked Dream Odyssey. It was a stressful episode for them and their kids, even though they were not the victims.

The Wheeler family aboard Mima, at Mario’s Marina; those kids will be a hard act to follow on "show and tell day" back at school.

Yes, Marios was a hybrid scene of live aboard boaters and visiting cruisers. The vibe was almost like a cruise ship: we all emerged from our rooms (boats) to walk to the main deck (the Cayuco Club) to see what was going on, check the activities agenda, and learn the latest news on the Rio. There was news via “coconut telegraph” a method of communicating that is as fast as high speed internet. And then there was also the latest news from the outside world via the television in the Cayuco Club. Either CNN or FOX News would be on, depending on whether or not a Democrat or a Republican was first to seize the television remote that morning (there were only a few skirmishes).

Saturdays were very special. Mario’s held a cruisers’ swap meet. Both cruisers and local craftsmen would come by dinghy and launchera from all over the Rio, boating into the event with various goods for sale. Some items were used “treasures of the bilge” and other items were brand new.

Local Guatemalans liked the event too. You just never knew what would be for sale or who would show up.

"Cowboy" a very handsome Guatemalan fellow with a real nice, straw cowboy hat and collared button-down shirt always showed up with fresh shrimp. Walking the docks and knocking on boats, he could be heard calling: "Camerones! Grande! Muy Fresco! Camerones! " (Shrimp! Big! Very fresh! Shrimp!). Also, the Casa Guatemala boat would come around and sell meats and cheeses, the proceeds going to help a local orphanage.

And, of course, the whole thing is THE Saturday morning social event of the Rio. Old and new friends exchanged old and new information about anything and everything, all while eating Mario’s special Saturday morning Pizza.

By early afternoon, the tables were cleared and the vendors were gone . . . all just in time for the next invasion: dominoes, poker, and Majong players all ready for an afternoon of cold beer and hot competition. One time Melissa and I were eating a late lunch and I thought we were going to get run out of the restaurant with pitchforks for taking up one the gang’s “favorite” tables.

Sunday afternoon competition: a dominoes tournament is in full swing.

Like all social groups, liveaboard cruisers at Mario’s have gone through the stages of group development: “forming, storming, norming and conforming” . . . we just had to realize that the first three stages happened YEARS before we ever got there for our first season, so for all the newbies like us, it was all about simply conforming (if you knew what was good for you).

I mention this as a feature that is much more interesting than irritating. Sometimes the “best show in town” at Mario’s was watching some of the longtime residents wrestle with ongoing egos, power trips, and long-in-the-tooth group dynamics. Sometimes it appeared to be a rough-and-tumble big corporate environment, rather than a tiny, rustic jungle marina.

And while all that operated visibly at the surface, just as it does to some degree in any group sharing tight quarters, the majority of the time we were immersed in good times and fun functions.

Every Monday, the kitchen of Mario’s is closed to be stripped and cleaned (a good thing). So, Mondays are “pot-luck” nights. The bar is open and drinks are available; so are plates and silverware. Cruisers all bring a dish and pitch-in to create a buffet. The evening staff is invited to eat too and joins in the sampling of “comida a la gringo.”

There were movie nights too. My contribution on one particular evening shortly after Paul Newman's death was a loan of Cool Hand Luke . . . “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

And there were big parties hosting the entire boating community on the Rio. The Halloween party at Mario’s was awesome. Cruisers can come up with some pretty wild costumes, considering they are isolated in the Third World.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (complete with Stars and Stripes on her fishing pole).

The devil made him do it!

Bonita Senorita y Caballero Excellente

Perhaps tremendously politically incorrect nowadays in some places, this is still just innocent fun on the Rio!

How sweet it is!

Chuck Hill's costume: A Carolina Boy eating a massive plate of BBQ!

A pretty mermaid with a date!

The Tooth Fairy!

Jim Ellis, owner of Mario's: he didn't have time to put on a costume and simply came "as is."

Those wacky Cajuns from Indigo Moon!

Many of our experiences on the Rio Dulce were great, but there is so much more to Guatemala than a pretty little river where gringos hang out. An amazing diversity of topography, the Mayan culture, historic ruins, and areas far away from the Rio Dulce are what made the Guatemala experience truly unforgettable.

So, let’s turn our attention away from the Rio Dulce and get to the rest of what Guatemala has to offer. We’ll see some amazing sights that are truly unique in all of our Caribbean cruising experiences.

Bocueron and the Turncentro Paradise Waterfalls

You don’t have to travel far from the Rio Dulce to find wonderful things to see and do. We took a private day trip with Ken and Roberta of Second Wind and Roger and Sue of Neos. Our guide, also an employee of Tortugal Marina, took us to the Bocueron River Gorge for a morning cayuco (canoe) trip. After a picnic lunch, we then went to the Turncentro Paraiso waterfalls, a local attraction for swimming and relaxing.

Here are some pictures:

Beautiful geologic formations at Bocueron canyon.

The winding river takes us through light and shadow that is spellbinding.

A local paddles by in his cayuco.

(L to R) Ken, Roger, Melissa, Roberta, and Sue.

The river runs fast here.

Self-portrait at the Bocueron Canyon.

After the Bocueron river trip, we traveled to the hot waterfalls. Some of the main roads in Guatemala are in pretty good shape, but others are terribly rough. We spent over an hour doing 15 miles per hour on a rough road. By the way, that is not a fun way to spend an hour.

But, soon we were getting close to the next destination: Turncentro Paraiso waterfalls

Here we go:

A rough road to travel, we creep along at 15 m.p.h. or less for an hour.

Sunlight dances through the canopy at this favorite swimming hole; the falls are well over 80 degrees, heated by underground aquifers. Also, the clay mud is alleged to be a skin conditioner

Roberta and Sue give the mud a try! It WORKS! Look how beautiful they are!

We enjoyed our day trip immensely and were good and tired when we got back to our marinas. As we laid down to fall asleep, Melissa and I remarked on how surprised we were by the beautiful topography of Guatemala. It was a great day and left us wanting to see more! By the next morning, we were ready to plan our next inland adventure!

The Mayan Ruins at Quirigua

A bunch of us from Mario’s Marina decided to organize a little field-trip. Just a short bus ride from Fronteras, you will find a small, yet unique and impressive Mayan site where the largest, carved, sandstone monoliths in all of Mayan history have been preserved. Some stand over thirty feet tall.

Before we get there, here is a brief history of Quirigua (derived from Lonely Planet travel guide):

The geographical location of Quirigua resulted in the availability of materials that allowed the production of very large monoliths called stelae (“Stella”).

The nearby Rio Motagua produced beds of brown sandstone that was soft and easily cut in large panes that dried hard thereafter. In 725 A.D. the area’s leader was Cauac Sky and he sought independence from Copan. In the year 737, Sky managed to imprison Copan’s King “18 Rabbit.” Soon thereafter, Sky beheaded 18 Rabbit and Quirigua became independent from Copan. King Sky commissioned stone cutters who produced sandstone carvings over the next 38 years, all celebrating Sky’s glory of winning Quirigua's independence.

In the early 1900’s United Fruit Company bought all of the land in the area of Quirigui, without knowing the ruins even existed. The ruins were totally overgrown and lost. United Fruit commenced turning the area into banana groves. During that process, the ruins were discovered and preserved, ultimately becoming a National Park set within the banana fields.

After getting off the big bus, we caught this little bus owned by United Fruit. It took us from the main road to the ruins.

Our gang of cruisers at the gate (Buddy and Melissa under the sign) (photo courtesy Tom Bartley)

Paying for the park: foreign visitors pay four times more than locals, but it is still very cheap to get in.

Each stelae has a thatch roof protecting it.

Ornate and impressive, the Stelae tower over us.

Graffiti has been carved into some of the Stelae . . . .

Amazing craftsmanship and detail can be found in the carvings.

The grounds are maintained by hand; grass is cut with machetes and raked.

Small compared to most ruins, this compact ball court served the Quirigua and it’s King, Cauac Sky.

Preserved and indexed, these stones are stored under cover by archeologists.

Workers hand-manicure the site while small pots, containing hot embers from wood fires, produced pungent smoke to help deter mosquitoes; the mosquitoes were ferocious and, in certain areas, I took off my hat and flogged myself continuously while still getting devoured.

For the ride back to Fronteras, we caught a collectivo (collective bus) a small Toyota van packed with locals. We hit speeds of 80 kilometers per hour while passing lines of vehicles uphill and around blind corners. Drivers are absolutely wild and there are severe crashes on occasion. We were lucky and made it back to Frontras in one piece.

During our ride, the van kept stopping to pick people up on the side of the road. When the van reached a capacity of about 15 people, we began to seriously wonder where they were going to put new passengers boarding the bus. Each time someone new got on, everyone (except us) seemed to know just how to shift to make more room. We ultimately counted 27 passengers! 80 kilometers per hour in a packed "sardine can" is astonishing and frightening all at the same time.

Collectivo is "standing room only" at 80 kilometers per hour!

Having enjoyed the trips to Quirigua and Bocueron, we were ready to make some bigger tours into the country and see some of the truly famous Guatemalan tourist attractions.

On this next foray inland, we will see: 1) Guatemala City (the capitol); 2) Antigua (the old capital that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773); 3) the lakefront town of Panajachel situated on famed Lake Atitlan; and, 4) the bustling marketplace in Chichicastenango located in the Quiche Highlands.

It is an aggressive plan to see all of the most famous inland destinations in southern Guatemala.

We were all set to go, and after our two, small inland day trips, we were beginning to feel much more confident about traveling in Guatemala despite travel warnings and the high violence rate the country currently suffers.

Wouldn’t you know it? A woman showed up at Mario’s Marina the day before we were set to leave and she gave a detailed account of just being assaulted in a Hotel in Antigua wherein an armed gang overtook the entire small hotel where she was staying. She was hit in the head with a pistol. The Police did nothing and did not even take the names of the victims.

There was no denying it: this news was very disconcerting, but we used the power of self-serving deduction to set us free: "Hey! We are already here in Guatemala anyway so we might as well 'get our money's worth' and go everywhere and see all the sights!"

Thus, we struck out for Guatemala City and beyond. Chuck and Terri from Maker’s Match teamed up with us. Also, the crew from La Rina Gayle was on the same schedule for part of the tour so the three crews departed the Rio Dulce together.

Guatemala City

The trip started by having to get from Mario’s Marina to Fronteras to catch the bus, so the Marina staff was hired to give us a ride to town in one of the Marina’s launches.

Once in Fronteras, we bought tickets and boarded the Litegua bus for a five-hour-long ride to Guatemala City. This is a regular bus, something like an old Greyhound, NOT the small collectivo type.

At the midway point in the trip to Guatemala City, the bus stopped at a restaurant for lunch before continuing on. It provided us a chance to stretch our legs, use the restroom and get something to eat. The restaurant is really more like a food court. Our snack of choice, naturally, was lots of ice cream.

The bus was not exactly comfortable. The seats are very close, a better fit for the typical Guatemalan (with a height of about 5’5”). It was a tight squeeze for six foot tall gringos like us – and painful at times. Also, Guatemalans would, understandably, put their seats in the fully reclined position and the seats were so close that we would wind up with a Guatemalan’s head right under our noses.

Here are a few photos:

In the morning mist we ride the Rio to Fronteras to catch the bus to Guatemala City (photo courtesy Chuck Hill)

In the Litegua Bus station in Fronteras, we wait for our bus to arrive (photo courtesy Chuck Hill)

The landscape along the way includes strikingly beautiful mountain ranges. The more you travel west and south, the more rugged the terrain, culminating in a dramatically complex mountain range comprised of over thirty volcanoes. It is amazing!

Getting closer to “ Guat City” there are more buildings.

Here we are in a rough, older part of the city where the bus station is located.

Street scene as viewed from the bus on the way to the station.

As soon as we got off the bus, we got directly into a taxi. We were told to do so for security reasons and knowing that there have been some serious incidents of armed robbery near the station. Chuck and Terri shared our cab but were dropped off at another stop to take care of some business. Melissa and I went on to the Biltmore Express Hotel that is located in a much newer part of the city. The modern and clean hotel even has free breakfast and gives discounts to Mario's Marina cruisers. How cool is that?

The hotel was very nice indeed and we enjoyed long showers both first thing in the morning and just before bed . . . an obscene luxury for cruisers who are always monitoring water consumption. We also had use of a first-class swimming pool. We liked it so much, we decided to book a few extras days on our way back through Guatemala City on the return trip to the Rio Dulce.

Looking down from our hotel room at the Biltmore Express, there is a first-class pool.

Before we go further, let’s learn a little bit about the one and only Big City in all of Guatemala (derived from Lonely Planet travel guidebook).

With a population of two million, Guatemala City is the largest city in all of Central America. It’s huge and broken up into Zones, with "Zona One" being the oldest (and most infamously dangerous) and Zona 14, for example, being much more modern and safer.

Lonely Planet describes Guatemala City as “huge and chaotic” where “street urchins eke out a tenuous existence in the city’s poverty-stricken areas” and goes on to say “the city’s few interesting sights can be seen in a day or two and many travelers skip the city altogether.”

Not exactly a glowing endorsement for a capitol city and the largest metropolitan area in all of Central America. Perhaps the most damning thing in the Lonely Planet guide is the absence of any section whatsoever on the history of the city.

Guatemala City’s crime was covered in Part One and we need not revisit the subject here. Let’s just say that we were extremely cautious and vigilant and toured Guatemala City despite the palpable risks of being there.

We decided to hire a bus and tour guide to be on the safe side and also get the most out of the visit to Guatemala City.

Old church in Guatemala City.

Facing the square at Plaza Mayor, in Guatemala City's Zona One, is the Cathedral Santiago de Guatemala.

Fountains at Plaza Mayor.

The Presidential Palace at Plaza Mayor.

Our tour guide explains the Civil War in front of the Cathedral, where columns are etched with the names of the hundreds of thousands who died in the conflict.

Inside the Cathedral Santiago de Guatemala: "To talk to God, you don't need to use a cell phone! Please turn it off!"

Pineapple vendor in Plaza Mayor, Guatemala City

Huge relief model of Guatemala is located in a park in Guatemala and demonstrate the amazingly rugged volcanic mountain ranges of southwestern Guatemala.

McDonald's is one of the favorite fast foods in Guatemala. There are over one hundred McDonald's restaurants in Guatemala City alone and they even deliver . . . here is a fleet of motorcycles ready to zip toward your location with a Happy Meal and more!

One interesting fast fact about fast food . . . Guatemala is still in the Golden Age of fast food. There are over 100 McDonald’s restaurants there. During our guided tour (with the gang from La Rina Gayle along with us too), I got hungry and asked everybody if they would mind stopping for lunch. I told the driver and the tour guide that I’d buy them lunch too.

They proudly took us to the most famous McDonald’s where, as the story goes, the "Happy Meal" was conceived and designed and made part of the McDonald’s product design in the U.S.A. too. That’s right, the Happy Meal was born in Guatemala City. That’s something you didn’t see coming!

The McDonald’s restaurants are clean; the food is good; workers are neat and happy. They rush to get your order out. Counter personnel will run to grab your french fries; they are proud of their uniforms. In the Puerto Barrios McDonalds, for example, a very pretty lady opened the door and greeted us as if we were entering the Plaza Hotel in NYC. I looked around and the entire restaurant was as clean as a high-tech white-glove Japanese microchip manufacturer's plant.

And as for the Pizza Hut near our hotel in Guatemala City, a very accommodating staff tends to you at your table. The young and beautiful pack the place, all wearing the finest clothes and accessories. Pizza Hut is an upscale experience in Guatemala City to say the least. It is the place to "see and be seen" and serves excellent pizza. Amazing!

There is one name you are not familiar with, however: Pollo Campero. This fried chicken franchise dominates Guatemala and is seen everywhere. And, like the other fast food places, it offers excellent food, great service and happy times.

The quality of the food and service in these Guatemala City fast-food restaurants is a confirmation that my childhood recollections are not an illusion: fast food restaurants actually used to be good, clean, and fun with quality food at a good price. Who would have guessed that some things from the "good old days" in the U.S.A. are still alive and well in Guatemala City?

After our tour around Guatemala City, it was time to move on to more-interesting historical destinations that offer a little more than tales of the Golden Arches. And so, from Guatemala City, we traveled to the next logical stop: the old city of Antigua.

Antigua, Guatemala

The city named Antigua in Guatemala is pronounced “an-tee-gwah” and is not to be confused with the island in the Eastern Caribbean with the name of the same spelling is pronounced “ahn-tee-ga.” Get this right, or else a snippy fellow traveler will interrupt whatever you are saying mid-sentence to "school you."

That said, Antigua, Guatemala, is a city that was founded in 1543. It was the capital of Guatemala for 233 years. It all came crashing to an end . . . literally. An earthquake demolished the city in 1773. Thus, just before the United States declared independence in 1776, Antigua had already been around for over 200 years and came tumbling down.

After Antigua was destroyed, the capital was moved to Guatemala City at its current location.

Slowly rebuilt after the earthquake, Antigua now serves mostly as a tourist center that is famous for its excellent Spanish language schools, trendy restaurants, and other tourist attractions. It is said that the “cleanest” Spanish in all of the Americas is spoken in Guatemala and taught in Antigua. You will find many ‘gringos’ in Antigua who take advantage of the exceptional Spanish schools.

Nestled between three volcanoes, one never loses sight of the gorgeous and dramatic views that surround the city.

Antigua is quite interesting to see, although it takes a while to recognize the beauty. When I first arrived in Antigua, it looked like a huge mini-warehouse storage facility to me: block after block of continuous one-story buildings with little curbside character and big, locking doors and metal gates and locks forming compounds around anything and everything. It was’t at all what I had expected, so I was surprised. I thought there would be hills, lots of trees, and vegetation. But the city of Antigua feels like a giant, flat parking lot instead.

After we got checked into our small hotel (and made sure it had adequate security) we began to explore and soon learned that the inner courtyards of Antigua hold secret gardens and delightful inner courtyards that are hidden from the bland streets.

One of the nicest attributes of Antigua is the climate and perfect temperature. The days are pleasantly warm while the nights are perfectly cool. The moderate temperatures were a welcome break from the super heat of summer in the jungles of the Rio Dulce.

Time stands still in the quaint town of Antigua. The streets are cobblestone and the old buildings that survived the earthquake are colonial in architecture. Ruins of old cathedrals, and a few other pre-earthquake structures still remain throughout the town.

Spanish schools are everywhere. You can stay in Antigua and learn as much Spanish by day as you desire and enjoy fine dining and excellent live music by night.

Also, there are large marketplaces and Artisan markets where tons of Guatemalan handicrafts are for sale. It is fun to see all of the items for sale and to do a little bargaining. We bought a few things there, but saved our ‘major shopping’ for Chichicastenango.

Naturally, there are plenty of cathedrals and a shaded town square for the gathering of locals and visitors . . . obligatory features of any Latin American City

Here is a look around:

One of the old cathedrals, located at the old square of Antigua

Fountain in Antigua's square (Courtesy of Chuck Hill).

Our small hotel's inner courtyard.

More of our hotel: beautiful!

Old cathedral on the other side of town from the old square.

Handicrafts for sale.

Guatemalan woman and child in Antigua.

Life-sized art that catches the eye.

Full size wooden Hombres for sale .

The central square in Antigua is busy with locals and tourists.

Typical street in Antigua .

Arches are popular in Guatemala; this one arch in Antigua spans a main street and frames the cathedral's dome beyond.

We did not spend much time in Antigua and my impression was that one day is all it takes to see the sights and move on. Melissa would disagree with me though. She said she would like to have spent much more time there exploring all the nooks and crannies hidden behind all those locked gates and doors that seem do be hiding all of Antigua from its own streets.

Also, people who are very familiar with Antigua report that there is an excellent historical library there and an active expatriate community that is very interesting as well. It is a special place to be sure.

Nonetheless, it was time to move on. Our next stop: Lake Atitlan.

Lake Atitlan

Situated in Guatemala's Highlands, Lake Atitlan is as spectacular a lake setting as you will find anywhere in the world.

We traveled by small tour bus to get there. Deep switchbacks wind through complicated and steep sets of mountains. Then, areas of rolling hills are reached, where it looks like a fabulous, green patchwork quilt of farmlands has been laid out on the hills to air in the sun.

People were dressed in the interesting traditional clothing of the Maya. The colors, styles and patterns of each village are unique and each garment is the individual creation of its weaver. As we passed through towns and villages, we saw glimpses of a very different culture. It was an absolute feast for the senses.

Terraced hillsides of dark, rich soil are beautifully proportioned and look more like artistic sculptures than agricultural necessities.

Then more switchbacks through the jungles and mountains as we clawed our way through incredibly craggy terrain. When you reach a pass now and then and look out over the mountains it is hard to believe there is any way at all to navigate them or build roads. So steep and confused and concentrated the grades, it all looks impossible. Yet we made headway.

The island of Dominica in the Eastern Caribbean, if you remember, is very rugged in the same way and Columbus tried to describe its sharp peaks and complex grades by crumpling a piece of paper. Compared to the volcanic mountain ranges of Guatemala, Dominca looks pretty much like Kansas.

As I continued to be amazed by the topography, the moment came. We rounded a curve and from far, far above we gazed down upon Lake Atitlan for the first time. It is as fine a vista as I have ever seen in my life bar none. Hawaii, Europe, the U.S.A. . . . you name it. As soon as the lake came into view, my mind instantly pegged it as a solid “10” on the world stage.

The lake itself is actually a massive caldera that formed when a volcano collapsed and created a deep cone-shaped lake bottom that reaches depths of one thousand feet. Mysteriously, the lake’s water levels rise and fall without scientific explanation. Three volcanoes still loom over the lake, standing guard around it. The vistas are nothing short of breathtaking.

According to the Lonely Planet Guidebook, the lakefront town of Panajachel, at a cool elevation of 4,700 feet, had been a popular gringo expatriate hangout for decades. In fact, the town is nicknamed “Gringotenango” and in the 60’s and 70’s it was crowded with bohemian travelers in “semi-permanent exile.” But as the Civil War raged, and Guatemala became more dangerous, many of the gringos had moved on by the 80’s.

Now the town’s tourist trade is booming again and many other lakeside villages have begun to enjoy income from tourist dollars. There is even a tour available that takes you around the banks of the entire lake to see all the towns along the lake’s edge. Also, hiking trips are available to climb volcanoes if you are into that.

Our hotel, Casa Del Mundo, is a fabulous resort spread out on the steep, rocky banks of Lake Atitlan. Our room, at least 150 feet above the water, had two walls of windows that looked out on the lake and volcanoes. When you awoke in the early morning, you had to rub your eyes to makes sure you were not dreaming.

Everything about the hotel was gorgeous and the attention to detail was amazing. Flowers were everywhere. Traditional handcrafts were in every room, and each was decorated perfectly.

Along with seeing Panajachel and Casa Del Mundo, we took a water taxi across the lake to the small town of Santiago Atitlan to have lunch and see what a smaller lake village looked like.

The most impressive thing about that trip in the water taxi was to realize just how huge the lake is. Crossing it looked like a short trip, but the scale of the surrounding volcanoes makes the distance appear deceptively short. It took quite a long time to make it to the other side of the lake. What looked like a two mile ride to my nautically savvy eyes, turned out to be more like six or seven miles.

Here is the photo journal:

On the way to Lake Atitlan, women in a village have poultry for sale.

A street-market scene in one of the small towns in the Highlands.

Farming the highlands.

Lake Atitlan, with Panajachel (lower left).

Casa Del Mundo.

One of the many vistas from Casa Del Mundo.


And more.

And more of Casa Del Mundo.

Rudimentary boats used on the Lake.

Santiago Atitlan, where produce is being loaded.

Chuck Hill laughs when the Tuc-Tuc drivers get into a fierce bidding war for our business.

Tuc-tucs in a jam.

Fabrics for sale.

Guatemalan children swarm Melissa, trying to sell trinkets.

The morning view from our room at Casa Del Mundo

Melissa and the volcano.

One of the more exciting occurrences at Casa Del Mundo was the shower in our room. There was no electric light in the shower. The ceiling was an opaque, white corrugated sheet of fiberglass that served as a skylight during the day, but left you in the dark at night. The low watt bulb over the sink, across the bathroom, provided very little light to the shower.

Well, one evening I took a shower and dried off and called out to Melissa: “your turn!”

She came in and started getting ready to enter the shower as I walked out and slipped under the covers and picked up the latest book I was reading. I no sooner got my mind into gear on my book when a shriek came out from the bathroom, followed immediately by a towel-wrapped and dripping Melissa: “There’s a SCORPION on the shower curtain!”

Hooo weee! I got up and picked up one of Melissa’s sandals and, sure enough, there was a scorpion to be dealt with. I hope I demonstrated the resolve and courage that 007 agent James Bond did in the film “Dr. NO” when beat a tarantula to death in his hotel room, using a bedroom slipper! Panache or not, I won and the scorpion lost.

The most disconcerting thing was that I was just in there moments before, naked for several minutes, with the scorpion. I had to resist the urge of keeping one hand over my privates at all times for the next few days!

Melissa then read in the room literature that they have a “very healthy ecosystem” and that you should shut your bags and check your shoes before putting them on, and maybe even pull your bed away from the wall so that scorpions don’t get you. You have to hand it to the marketing department . . . couching "scorpion threats" as a subset of good health and ecology.

We survived the scorpion episode without a scratch, but let’s just say it reminded us that we were not at a Holiday Inn Express off Interstate 10 somewhere. We were still deep in the jungle and deep in Guatemala.

During out stay at Lake Atitlan, we also took a daytrip to the famous markets of Chichicastenango.


This small city was an important trading center long before the Spanish arrived on the scene. Today, it is THE marketplace in Guatemala for purchasing arts, crafts, artifacts and souvenirs. On Sundays and Thursdays there are isles and isles and streets and streets of kiosks selling fabrics, leather goods, ceramics and woodworks of all kinds.

"Chi Chi" is a very busy and bustling place. It was a challenging day. Guatemalans love to bargain and they are good at it. It took us a while to get the hang of it. Sometimes a vendor would chase you down a block away with the article you were interested in (hand-wrapped with newspaper and ready to hand over) and sell it for the price you “drew the line at” before walking away.

Other times they would hold their ground and let you walk away.

I finally hit upon a method that worked like a charm: begging. Apparently, they are not used to that tactic. Seeing a gringo man poor-mouthing and pleading was more than they could take. As soon as I figured that out, I quickly put the tactic to use in order to "even out" some of the bad deals I made early on in the day: “Por favor! Amiga! Por favor? No tengo mas dinero! Es no problema para usted. Es no problema. Yo quiero! Muy bella! Por favor!" You have to look like you will cry. That throws them over the edge, especially the ladies.

At one point we heard someone calling out loudly behind us “Amiga! Amiga!” and looked around to see a lady who sells handicrafts on the Rio Dulce by the dinghy dock at Bruno’s in Fronteras (she also brings crafts to the Mario’s Saturday swap meets). We had bought a few things from her and spoke to her several times over the months we were on the Rio. She was very excited to see us and had chased us down the street to catch up with us. She just wanted to say hi. It was fun to see her there. She was replenishing her inventory of goods to sell on the Rio.

By the end of the day, we had quite an assortment of masks, flutes, woodworks, leather goods and woven goods. We have many beautiful keepsakes and mementos to share with friends and family and to remind us of Guatemala.

Sharing a water taxi with locals in traditional dress on Lake Atitlan,

More highlands farmland.

Guatemalans getting ready for Independence Day!

The streets of Chichicastenango.

Bustling markets of Chi Chi

Old woman selling flowers on the steps of a church.

Fresh strawberries for sale.

Fabulous crafts purchased in Chichicastenango.

We thoroughly enjoyed our inland travels. As for travel risks, we had good luck and played it safe, making it back to Mario’s Marina with nothing whatsoever to report except fabulous experiences and great memories from our major tour of Southern Guatemala.

So what is next? The Mayan ruins at Tikal in Northern Guatemala! These ruins are of the largest city in Mayan history. Before we get going, though, we need to know at least a little more about the Maya.

The Mayan Culture

From National Geographic’s publication "Mysteries of the Maya, the rise, glory and collapse of an ancient civilization" this follows:

"It is only recently that archeologists and others have begun piecing together the dramatic history of the Mayan world, rich in intrigue, conquest, and the splendor of rulers such as King Pakal. Today excavations at vine-shrouded cities and decipherments of crumbling inscriptions are shedding brilliant new light on the ancient Maya -- their kings and queens, artists and astronomers, courtiers and merchants, farmers and craftspeople. It's a world of magnificent artistic and intellectual achievement."

Not "interesting” achievements mind you. The Mayans accomplished MAGNIFICENT achievements: the types of artistic and scientific accomplishments that we U.S.A.-educated souls seem to think only happened "across the pond" in the early ages of man there.

On the contrary, right here in the Americas the Maya were one of the most advanced societies in the ancient world. Their mathematics grasped the concept of zero. It was not until the 12th century that Europeans finally grasped the function of zero in calculations.

According to the information I studied in National Geographic's great publication, the Maya were amazing.

Ancient Maya engineers designed and constructed massive temples without iron tools or the wheel. Astronomers calculated movements of heavenly bodies with remarkable accuracy. For example, the Maya’s calculation of the month is only 24 seconds off from atomic clocks.

Archeologists have grappled with attempting to understand glyphs and inscriptions in the Mayan ruins that remain. According to National Geographic, in the early 1950’s a Russian linguist, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov proposed that the signs were not only words, but syllables too. A decade later, Harvard’s Tatiana Proskuoriakoff arranged the symbols from ruins at Piedras Negras in chronological order and saw they represented the history of dynasty. There were over 800 discovered signs by then . . . too many to be a mere alphabet.

The final code was cracked by David Stuart, the son of archeologist George Stuart. As a child, David entertained himself by copying signs and glyphs with his crayons. He began to appreciate the complex use of the hieroglyphs: sometimes one was word; at other times one was a syllable to be combined with other signs to create a word. There were even combinations that were a form of shorthand.

Again, per National Geographic:

“The masters of the signs were known as scribes – esteemed members of the royal court with their own patron gods, depicted as monkeys. Using fine chisels they inscribed stone monuments with heroic royal sagas. With brushes and turkey quills, they wrote sacred texts on paper made from tree bark. They also added descriptive labels to many objects, from altars and temples to pottery and jewelry.

The last known date recorded by a Mayan scribe, on a monument at Tonina, is January 18, 909. In the wake of devastating wars, once great cities were abandoned and soon reclaimed by the jungle. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they burned old manuscripts by the thousands. But enough words survive on ruins, scattered artifacts, and a few fragile pages to offer a glimpse of how the Maya lived, and how their great civilization came crashing down.”

So, what we know the most about Mayan culture is that we don’t know much at all yet. Secrets are still being unlocked and there is so much more to decipher. In spite of the Spaniards’ efforts to decimate all things Maya, much of the culture is now coming to light.

In short, Guatemala offers a tremendous experience in cultural and historical riches left by the Maya. Thousands of tourists visit Guatemala annually and they leave enchanted, captivated and awestruck from the scale of the ruins at Tikal, a complex of temples that were built during a time span between 800 B.C. and 900 A.D.

Think about it! That’s seventeen hundred years for a city! And more perspective: all of that time span, in its entirety, occurred 600 years before the Spanish arrived in Central America in 1502. This information seems to refute the “ New World” designation that Europeans give to their “‘discovery” of the Americas.

There is so much to cover about Mayan culture that it cannot be given justice here and, considering I am not even a learned tourist much less an expert, odds are that some of what I have passed on here is somehow inaccurate.

But, there are some rudimentary things for you to ponder that I read in the same National Geographic publication. In keeping with the quality of National Geographic, the publication is fantastic in every way: photographs, illustrations, tables and excellent writing. Here is a brief overview of some of the basics I found engaging, all gleaned directly from National Geographic:

A. Maya belief in creation

The Mayans believe that, in the cosmos, caves and openings are entrances to the water-filled underworld called “Xibalaba” which means “place of fright.”

The legend of Maya creation begins with supernatural beings who lived long before mortal man was created: twin brothers were very skilled at the traditional Maya ball game. They played too loudly, though, and soon disturbed the Gods of the underworld of Xibalaba. The God’s of the underworld challenged the twins to a contest.

The Gods defeated the twins and sacrificed them and buried their bodies under the ball court, except the Gods took one of the twins’ heads (that of Hun Hanahpu) and hung it on a tree that naturally bore fruit in the form of gourds that vaguely resembled human heads.

A young Goddess named Xquic heard about the strange tree and went to see it. When she got close enough to inspect the tree, Hun Hanahpu’s head spat into Xquic’s hand and she became impregnated with new twin brothers Hunahpu (Jr.) and Xbalanque. They became known as the Hero Twins.

These ball players grew up to be more skillful than their father and uncle. Again, the God’s of the underworld challenged. The God’s defeated the Hero Twins, ground up their bones and threw them in a river.

There the twins were reborn as fish and then as itinerant performers. Seeking revenge against the Gods of the underworld, the Hero Twins devised a trap. They put on a performance for the Gods of Xibalba and, as a grand finale, Xbalanque beheaded Hunahpu Jr. and then, miraculously made him whole again.

The Gods were so enthralled they demanded to be beheaded and made whole again to experience the magic first-hand. The Hero Twins happily obliged, but once the Gods were all beheaded, the Twins did not restore them and the Gods of the place of fright had been defeated. The Dark Lords were no more.

After that task was complete, the Earth was finally suitable for habitation by mortal human beings.

After defeating the evil Gods, the Twins emerged the underworld of Xibalaba, exiting a cave that had a mouth in the shape of a serpent. Thereafter, the Twins took the form of the Moon and the Sun as gifts to the Maya. Each day, the Twins disappear beneath the horizon and reenact their journey back down to the underworld. They rise again the next day to celebrate their joyful return from their conquests in Xibalba.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, you have to admit that the Maya Creation Story is very interesting. How neat it must be for children to believe the sun and moon are their Heroes who conquered the evil Gods of the underworld and made their human place on earth possible. I like the whole feel of that myth for some reason. It has an interesting hinge to both water and astronomy that pleases my nautical soul.

But, the myth surely has a disturbing side too and provides a greater understanding as to why the Maya built their famous ball courts and why it was often customary for the losing ball team to be beheaded. And, the hanging of Hunohpu’s head on the tree probably offers some explanation for the Mayan practice of displaying a severed head or two now and then.

An so, for the ancient Maya, there was the soothing thought of the sun and moon, your hero protectors traveling daily in the heavens above you, but concurrently on earth below, that same legend of protection from above meant that earthly Heroes were often destined to lose their heads, just as the Divine Hero Twins did!

I’m sure it’s more complicated. But, it does offer an interesting introduction into the Mayan mind set.

B. The rise and fall of the Maya

In 537 A.D. Tikal was the wealthiest of all Mayan Kingdoms. The kingdom was rich with chert, the raw material used to make tools for stone carving. It was located between two rivers and also controlled marshland and fertile soils.

King Wak Chan Kawiil was in power at the time and Tikal flourished, becoming the greatest commercial power in the Highlands.

The city was busy with stone cutters, jewelers, and other artisans all working to try and create the grandest city of all. "Like sixteenth-century Medici princes, the Maya kings became patrons of the arts."

Times were good and Tikal’s King enjoyed days under the shade of magnificent canopies atop grand temples, all while watching artisans, ball games, and receiving gifts from his subjects, gifts such as blocks of jade and jaguar skins.

But these opulent times were not destined to last. The kingdom of Calakmul to the north was a combative superpower that became intent on conquering Tikal. In 562 A.D. Calakmul attacked and took control of Tikal. Murals studied by archeologists indicate that as soon as Tikal fell, the Calakmuls captured King Kawiil and sacrificed him.

Tikal still grew as the preeminent kingdom in the Mayan world, but the conquest by the Calakmul, still ruling from the north, did not usher in peace. The new kings of Tikal could not forget the humiliation visited upon Tikal's people by the attack.

Ancient Maya society has been described as “highly concerned with personal honor and vengeance and vendetta.”

The successor King of Tikal in 695 A.D. decided to strike back. The King enjoyed a great victory over the Lord of Calakmul and the King of Tikal, Jasaw Chan Kawill, celebrated his triumph by riding into Tikal on a giant battle palanquin he captured from the enemy, all while sacrificing his captives to the Gods.

The riches of power and conquest were not to last, however.

By the end of the eighth century, Kings demanded too much labor from subjects. The land was overstressed and becoming depleted. As many as 92,000 people inhabited Tikal alone. Population densities in some areas reached the highest level of anywhere in the history of the pre-industrial world.

Then, in 810 A.D. a terrible drought hit and went on for nine years. Smaller droughts followed and then again in 860, a multi-year drought hit and lasted three years. In 910 A.D., a third blow: six more years of continuous drought.

Crops failed. Famine overtook the great cities. The masses starved to death. Some fled.

As set out in National Geographic: “When the rains finally returned, a few survivors crept back to Tikal, moving into old royal residences and squatting in chambers where mighty kings once ruled. But they could not restore the glory of the holy lords. That had vanished forever.”

And so, with all of that in mind, let’s get set for a trip to Tikal!

The Mayan Ruins of Tikal

A. Flores

Our journey to Tikal included a stay at nearby Flores, a town built on a small island that is only a few minutes’ drive from the ruins of Tikal. There is a hotel right at the gates of Tikal and you can enter the park early enough to beat the crowds, see the sunrise over the great temples and have a more-exclusive experience if you so choose.

On the flip side, if you choose to stay in Flores, you get to enjoy its charm as well as see Tikal.

On this trip, we had a private driver and private guides. No, we did not hire them. Bob and Trish Meredith, whom we met in Panama, have lived at Mario’s Marina aboard their yacht Barnacle for four years (but as this is written they are out cruising the Caribbean, headed for Colombia).

Bob and Trish have a Toyota 4 Runner and have driven over twenty thousand miles in Central America and visited most every Mayan ruin. They are “real deal” adventurers who have made the most of living in Guatemala and Central America.

After Melissa and I returned from our big tour inland in southern Guatemala, we came to the conclusion that we were done and that we would skip Tikal. “Hey, we’ll go see Chichen Itza in Mexico; we are tired of bus travel in Guatemala.”

Also, I broke my tailbone in a skydiving mishap in my wild and rowdy youth, and I hate sitting in cramped bus seats for long periods. So, Bob, on Barnacle offered to drive us to Tikal. Melissa and I declined, though, and had decided we were in “go mode” and were preparing to leave the Rio Dulce. Hurricane season was up and, as always, Indigo Moon was champing at the bit to get blue water flowing under her keels.

Then, the weather forecast turned bad and it looked like we would not leave for a while anyway. I asked Bob if I could be rude enough to accept an already refused invitation and he said “SURE!” Bob went on to say: “Buddy, if you don’t go to Tikal you will have missed Guatemala!” Sounds a little far fetched, right? Now I know it is not an exaggeration.

And so, Bob and Trish loaded up the gringo crew of Indigo Moon and off we went to Flores and Tikal. Let’s take a look at Flores first. Even though it is a tiny little town on a small island it has historical significance in that is was the last functional Mayan ceremonial center to finally fall to Spanish conquest. It was not until the year 1697 that the Spanish finally overtook the Mayan temples at Flores.

The Mayan temples (then named Tayasal instead of Flores) were built by the Mayan Itzeas after they were expelled from Chichen Itza to the north (in the area that would become the Mexican Yucatan).

The island of Tayasal was covered with pyramids, temples, and idols. The Spanish were still superstitious and their reaction to anything Mayan was uniform: destroy it! The God-fearing Spanish demolished every single structure in Tayasal. There are no ruins or remains to be found in Flores as a result, but there are still spirits in the air and it is one of the truly quaint towns we saw in Guatemala. After the Spanish razed the area, the surviving Maya of Tayasal fled into the jungle and their migration resulted in legends of a “Lost City” being formed . . . perhaps it was Mirador near the Guatemalan and Mexican border.

Anyway, here is a look around Flores:

A water taxi takes us out to a tiny island off of Flores to see a museum.

The small island is the location of a radio station that boadcasted news during the Civil War; here, old radio equipment is on display.

The museum includes jade and clay artifacts from the area.

Mayan art.

The island of Flores lies across the lake.

Melissa and a Maya stone carving.

The cathedral of Flores as seen from offshore in the lake.

These cool Chicas are from Argentina and were selling crafts on the streets of Flores to pay their way to the festivals in Mexico.

A Mayan family enjoying the lakefront in Flores.

Sunset over the lake at Flores.

Night scene in Flores.

Morning sun on the streets of Flores.

Spectacular graffiti near the town of Flores.

We enjoyed our time walking the streets of Flores and we very much enjoyed Bob & Trish’s company and hospitality. After a nice dinner out, we hit the hay and got some rest in preparation for tomorrow’s tour of Tikal.

B. The Ruins of TIKAL:

The park at Tikal is only about twenty minutes from Flores. As soon as we got to the gates, we stopped and had breakfast at a little hotel there and then we were off on an all-day hike through the jungles and temples that make up the HUGE area of the ancient City of Tikal. You would be hard-pressed to see it all in one day, it is that big.

Here is the photo journal:

On our way into the Park, we encounter a mudslide that will block large buses from getting to the Park, making the site less crowded for us! Mudslides and landslides of rock are common in Guatemala's rugged terrain. We learned that any display of fresh, green limbs along the roadway mean danger around the bend. No plastic, red reflective-triangles, no flares . . . Guatemalans use fresh green branches as a highway warning system.

Long roads wind through the jungle and connect the various ruins of Tikal.

Atop one of the grand temples, other huge temples are seen around us, rising above the canopy.

The main plaza at Tikal has several temples.

Altar in the center of the main plaza.

Bob and Trish Meredith catching their breath atop a grand temple at Tikal.

Oscillated turkeys on the grounds.

A cross between peacock and turkey, these birds have brilliant plumage.

Very steep steps rise HIGH to the tops of temples.

Altars at a smaller temple.

Buddy climbing the steps of a small temple.

Artifacts from a royal tomb include jade, jewels and other precious items, not to mention the human remains of a Mayan King.

Buddy and Melissa at Tikal

The sensation of standing atop ruins of grand temples today is a powerful mixture of awe and reverence. Melissa and I were mesmerized – utterly captivated by the view of the jungle from as high as one hundred forty feet, a view once reserved exclusively for kings.

Despite Tikal’s importance and immense scale it is surprisingly off the beaten path. Located deep in the jungle, Tikal is still remote: howler monkeys scurried in the canopy above us while birds like toucans, parrots and oscillated turkeys kept a close eye on us too.

You can still climb the ruins at Tikal, a practice that is now forbidden at Mayan sites like Chichen Itza in Mexico. We later visited Chichen Itza and the ruins are roped-off and there are so many souvenir vendors on the sacred grounds that it’s more like being at an overrun theme park now than a sacred ruin. So, we are so very lucky to have seen Tikal. We can thank the Merediths for that!

Guatemala’s government is preserving the integrity of its Mayan ruins. Thankfully, modern man has yet to commercialize and dilute the genuine spirit and aura of precious Tikal.

Finca Ixobel

We had a fabulous time seeing Tikal. And it pays to be in the company of "locals" and not on a bus. Bob and Trish knew of a little Finca (ranch) on the way back to the Rio Dulce where they have a great bakery and sell cinnamon rolls and bread.

So, on the way back, we stopped at Finca Ixobel to buy goods from the bakery. These types of Finca resorts can be found scattered here and there about Gautemala.

Here is a look at Finca Ixobel:

Fincas (plantations) such as this are found in the countryside of Guatemala and many entertain tourists.

Back home in the U.S.A., you don't see these kinds of signs very often.

One of the outbuildings of the Finca

Trish and Melissa buy baked goods from the Finca's kitchen, including awesome cinnamon rolls.

After loading up on cinnamon rolls and sodas, we began the last leg of the journey back to the Rio. While eating pastries and trying to keep our sticky fingers off the upholstery, we all reflected on Tikal and the wonders of Guatemala.

Trish is so fun and entertaining! She will point out at the landscape toward a set of small hills and say: “That could be more ruins! Look at them! They are just the right size and shape! How do you know? It makes me want to go hack through the jungle and find out!”

And it is true. Her excitement is contagious! There are surely a few, if not many more, Mayan ruins that have not been discovered and are still held secretly in the jungle's grip. It is easy to see how Guatemala gets deep into one’s heart and mind, and why so many people travel there to reap the many rewarding experiences that can be found, literally, nowhere else on earth.

The Maya are tough. They have survived hundreds and hundreds of years of tremendous challenges. The most-recent five decades of Civil War and genocide are just a small chapter in the survival challenges faced by the Maya over the centuries.

According to more found in National Geographic:

“Today more than six million Maya live in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. They speak 28 Mayan Languages, and many continue to follow the old ways. They live in adobe and mud-brick houses, tend the fields of corn, sell handmade wares at thriving markets, and give thanks in age-old rituals. ‘We are people of the corn’ explained Maya activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rogobeta Menchu . . . we are people made from white and yellow corn.’

Until recently, most Maya children received little formal education and learned little of their history. They regarded ancient Maya cities such as Tikal only as tourist attractions for foreigners. In recent years, however, schools in Guatemala have begun training Maya teachers and giving Maya children an education in their native tongues. These students are learning, to their surprise and pride, that their ancestors built Tikal and thousands of other ruins. ‘The Maya,’ says archeologist Robert Sharer, ‘have managed to survive 500 years of economic depravation, political persecution, and genocide. That’s a very, very admirable quality.”

We will never forget what we learned about the Maya.

In many ways, Guatemala’s history reminded me of my remarks about the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where human rights atrocities took place within the framework of Eastern Caribbean slavery.

Like St. John, Guatemala possesses a stunning natural beauty that is of the finest kind that Mother Nature can produce. And like St. John, the overwhelmingly beautiful natural setting of Guatemala has been a stage for the worst in human nature: genocide and human rights violations of epic proportions.

I have always wondered how the absolute worst in human nature seems to take hold in settings where the absolute best in Mother Nature is present. It is a perplexing and confounding juxtaposition of horror and magnificence.

And so, Guatemala goes down in the Indigo Moon logbook as one of the most amazingly beautiful and culturally mysterious destinations in the entire Caribbean. There is no place like Guatemala. As we cruised out of the Rio Dulce's lower canyons at dawn, the vistas reminded us that we had been guests in one of the most exotic places on earth: the land of the ancient Maya.

Adios, Rio Dulce Y Guatemala! Buenas Suerte y Gracias! We will never forget our amazing experiences in Guatemala!


Our inland travels and cultural experiences in Guatemala were awesome.

As for the turmoil surrounding the heartbreaking Rio Dulce piracy and crime incidents of 2008, it is important for all to acknowledge that, of the one thousand or so boats that visited the Rio Dulce that season, only two had REAL trouble. And NO boats in marinas had trouble.

Of course, it would be utterly reprehensible to attempt to utilize statistics to deprecate the extreme seriousness of what happened to the Drydens and the Parsons on the Rio Dulce in 2008.

Nor can statistics serve to excuse, even in the least, the questionable local behavior by some at that time regarding a tendency to suppress and minimize safety and security information – information that could have very well completely prevented the very incidents that occurred last year.

All that aside, however, it is still absolutely true: but for the Dryden’s and Parsons’ piracy incidents, and the resulting sociological friction, there probably would not have been any bad vibe whatsoever about crime and risk during our stay in Guatemala. A half-dozen dinghy and outboard thefts would have been “just part of it” and not caused any real concerns (at least for seasoned cruisers like us who lock all their stuff and take careful precautions anyway).

But, after reading PART ONE, we all know now that there are travel risks to be taken seriously in Guatemala. The country suffers a relatively high level of violence, lawlessness, and corruption compared to many other Third World destinations, irrespective of any particular hurricane season’s statistics. As the old saying goes “you can’t un-ring a rung bell.” The cruising community as a whole has taken note of the safety and security risks that come with a visit to Guatemala.

And, by outward appearances, the community on the Rio Dulce has taken note of the advantages of dispensing safety and security information, not to mention the even greater importance of providing new security patrols.

What happened to the Drydens and Parsons has resulted in positive and progressive new efforts and fueled what appears to be real change on the Rio. If that trend continues, cruisers will probably be safer than ever before on the Rio Dulce.

Moreover, it would be sensationally unfair and incorrect to contend that the 2008 hurricane season represents “the way things always are” on the Rio Dulce. Every hurricane season brings a new chapter in Caribbean cruising history and no season is ever the same.

In 2006, when the whole fleet in the Eastern Caribbean was holed-up in Grenada by June, we were all faced with tough decisions. Do we stay in Grenada and risk another hurricane Ivan? How about running upwind to the southeast to Trinidad? Or, the third choice: run southwest to Venezuela where “Loco Chavez” might seize our yachts and incarcerate us, and where we might get hit by murderous pirates?

It’s the hurricane season “roulette wheel.” The single-most truly depressing thing about cruising has got to be hurricane season . . . it is the monster that drives cruisers from their favorite spots in paradise and forces tough decisions on where to run and hide until the season is over.

In 2006, many cruisers in Grenada thought we were nuts to head to Venezuela. In all honesty, to some degree we thought we were nuts too. Some cruisers decided to stick it out in Grenada without insurance and gambled that another killer storm like Hurricane Ivan would not strike again. Most cruisers went to Trinidad where it would be “much safer” than Venezuela.

As fate would have it, Venezuela was a delight in 2006, all while Trinidad’s 2006 hurricane season was a complete “melt-down” over a crime wave that exploded there that particular season. Cruisers in Trinidad became heated and totally immersed in the dynamics of crime and cruising that year, and the "crime issue" dominated their conversations at the time.

Fast forward: the 2008 hurricane season was, unfortunately, the Rio Dulce’s “turn in the barrel.” Even with all the violence and corruption problems in Guatemala (and there are surely many), there is no reason to predict that the 2009 season (or any other thereafter) will ever see physical harm come to a gringo again on the Rio Dulce.

In the end, I will have to borrow Venezuelan Dockmaster Potter’s position on Venezuela and say: "I cannot invite you to visit the Rio Dulce and Guatemala. It is a risk that you alone must assess and then decide to take." That same advice is applicable, really, to cruising and life itself.

Personally, in light of the new safety and security measures on the Rio, I now still give the Rio Dulce a “two thumbs up” (as long as all of my safety suggestions at the end of PART ONE are adhered to). But, we all have to assess risk as individuals and I cannot counsel anyone else, nor lend them advice, on where they should visit while cruising.

I can say with conviction that it is very hard to find real adventure that does not also include real risks. Those two things seem to come part and parcel: many times the greater the adventure the greater the risks. In the end there are no "correct" answers about any given destination and we all have to plot our own course and make those types of decisions on our own.

That said, if you do visit the Rio Dulce and Guatemala you will never forget it! I CAN promise you that! Guatemala is absolutely one of the most dramatic and amazing destinations in El Caribe, hands-down. The Maya culture, interesting and wonderful peoples, and the intense natural beauty of Guatemala all combine in a way to leave a permanent, pleasing impression.

In all seriousness, perhaps one of the biggest “risks” of all that one faces when entering the Rio Dulce is that he or she will be so enchanted and overcome with its natural majesty, and laid back pace, that they will fall hopelessly in love and never leave it. It is a common phenomenon. That is why many of the locals refer to the Rio fondly as "the river that eats gringos.”

Our dramatic experiences in Guatemala included the entire spectrum of real adventure: everything from excellent to appalling and back again. We will never forget our travels into the jungles of Guatemala, a mysterious and spiritual place that is unique.

Now, every time I see a beautiful sunrise at sea, a full moon shining down on me during a night watch, or a brilliant sunset in a calm anchorage, I reflect on the Mayan legend of the Hero Twins and admire their place in the sky as the sun and the moon: heavenly bodies who, through skill and clever action, defeated the evil God’s of the underworld. By so doing, they made the earth fit for you and me. As such, the sun and the moon serve me now as constant reminders that the power of divine good shines down upon us all each and every day. What a grand and precious gift from the Maya of Guatemala!

Until next time,

Melissa and Buddy Signature


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